EUREKA – Do we have a fundamental right to read books of our own choosing? Do we lose this right if we are arrested and put in jail?
These questions are at the heart of a Woodford County Jail inmate’s hunger strike. Kevin Johnson has been on a hunger strike since Oct. 23 to protest what his supporters call the jail’s book ban. Johnson and Tyler Lang, both animal activists from California, were arrested Aug. 14 for possession of burglary tools after a routine traffic stop. Their supporters have started a website, www.supportkevinandtyler.com, to raise awareness about their case and what they say is inhumane treatment at the Woodford County Jail.
Jail head Michael Waterworth has a different take on the situation.
“I don’t ban books,” he said. He said Johnson and Lang have access to books from the jail library but that they want to receive books people send to them.
That, he said, has been against jail policy for a long time.
In the past, people who sent inmates books used them to smuggle in contraband items, according to Waterworth.
“We would find contraband stuffed in books,” he said. “We’re not perfect. We can’t catch everything.”
To avoid this issue, he said, books that are mailed to inmates are placed with their personal property, and they receive them upon release.
Waterworth said he tried to accommodate the inmates’ reading needs with the library and added that this is the first time the jail has ever gotten complaints about access to books in 25 years.
“They’re the only ones complaining,” he said. “Everybody’s been treated the same.”
Waterworth said he only had so much room in the library and that he has stopped accepting donations of books from outside sources because the library is full.
“It had nothing to do with Tyler or Kevin or their beliefs or anything,” he said. “I only have so much room in the library.”
Richard Shackleforth, a supporter of Johnson and Lang, disagrees. He said Waterworth banned outside books to retaliate against the supporters’ website. The ban on books, he said, was implemented within six hours after the website posted a book wish list for Johnson and Lang.
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Shackleforth, who said he speaks to Johnson on the phone almost daily, said the issue has nothing to do with the jail library.
“The library is actually a myth,” he said. “There is a cart.”
Shackleforth said the cart had mostly religious texts and fiction books by authors such as Danielle Steele, and Johnson and Lang wanted to read different books.
Not being able to read these books has “taken a tremendous toll on their psychological health,” he said. He said that Johnson feels starving is a lesser form of suffering than not being allowed to read books that interest him.
Shackleforth said he thought it would be a positive thing for society and everyone if inmates were allowed to read books of their own choosing and “productively pass their time” behind bars.
He said it was basically a human rights issue and Woodford County Jail is singularly cruel.
“This is almost unheard of,” he said. “This is an inhumane jail and Kevin’s been driven to this.”
He added that the hunger strike is over the book ban because that issue is of the utmost concern to Johnson and Lang, but the jail has also violated other rights such as listening to client-attorney conversations and reading client-attorney mail.
Woodford County Sheriff Jim Pierceall rejects these assertions.
He said Johnson and Lang were “twisting the truth” in an effort to get publicity.
“They’re allowed to get books from the library,” he said. “This is a jail,” he said, “not a made-to-order hotel…They’re getting everything they need.”
The hunger strike will not change the policy on books, Waterworth said. He said Johnson will be monitored in a medical cell and the jail will follow doctor’s advice.
Other jails’ policies
Calls to surrounding jails about their policy on individual books being sent to prisoners generated a variety of different answers. Tazewell County said inmates could not receive books or magazines, and if they were sent these items, they would be put into their personal property and given to them upon release. Marshall County said inmates could receive books and magazines after they were carefully inspected. McLean County said inmates could receive books, but they had to be shipped directly to the jail from amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. Livingston County said any books sent to inmates became the property of the jail library, and inmates could read the books while they are incarcerated. Peoria County said books sent to inmates would be returned to sender and that inmates have access to the library there.