It’s 6:07 am. Out my window, I see the lady from the mailroom walking with a full cart of items. I skip the five steps to the door of this cell and announce, “Mailroom!” Everyone is excited. When I get books, I’m like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. In solitary confinement, the only pleasure I have is reading. Living in a cell the size of a parking space without a television, tablet, phone, or air-conditioning and only a temperamental radio signal, a book is more than entertainment and a much-needed distraction. It is a rare moment when I’m not reminded where I am. 

The average stay in solitary is seven years. I’m at five and a half.

People in solitary aren’t allowed to go to the prison library. For some reason, we still receive the (rendered useless) library catalog. If we have been discipline-free for ninety days, we qualify for one book a week, delivered from the library. It’s easy to receive an infraction. Examples include sharing reading materials and/or food with neighbors, covering your windows to block the blazing sun during triple-digit temperatures, or questioning guards. Whether we request a specific book and author or a generic mystery, romance, or humor book, the librarian always sends a Christian-themed book. In 2018, I asked her, “Why don’t you give me what I request?”

She said, “I’m called to save your heathen soul.”

I’m locked in this cell twenty-three to twenty-four hours a day. Solitary confinement is where we need books the most. Yet, prisons put up innumerable barriers for people in solitary to receive books. 

But I’m not thinking about any of that as the mail lady approaches my door. I’m bouncing off the walls with anticipation. I’m hopping from one foot to the other. I notice my four books in a neat stack. She pushes a yellow carbon form through the gap in the door as she says, “I’m sorry. You’re denied all four books.”

The art book is apparently sexually explicit.

The book on menopause includes “sexual images.”

The book I wanted on healing from childhood sexual trauma contains terms the prison has prohibited: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and… sex.

The book on prison abolition is denied because it would “incite violence.” My mouth falls, and I realize my hand is wet with tears, already freely flowing.

They can imprison our bodies, not our minds, or so I thought. History warns us of the dangers of banning books, but the effects of information control on imprisoned women are intimate and profound. The majority of women living in solitary confinement were transferred from juvenile prisons. At that age, talking back to prison staff or arguing about their treatment would be punished with a time-out. However, once people turn seventeen, talking back or arguing earns a new charge and conviction of assault. This results in additional sentence time, and transfer to solitary confinement in an adult prison. Being an adult in prison paradoxically means even less freedom. Many women in solitary were, therefore in juvenile facilities when their menstruation began. This means many incarcerated women don’t have basic knowledge about our bodies and how they work. We don’t have google. Books that can answer these questions are banned—as they are deemed ‘sexual.’ This leaves not just younger women but my fellow menopausal friends and me to fall back on what was and often continues to be taught in public schools–the abstinence and fear-based lessons that boil down to three commandments: Don’t touch your privates; Don’t touch other’s privates; Don’t let others touch your privates. Following these rules makes people perfect victims of sexual predators and preventable illnesses. It’s misinformation masquerading as education.

Prior to solitary, my cellmates would hear me chuckling as I read and ask me to read aloud. It became a routine we called ‘story time.’ During that time, I lived in the ‘long timer’ dorm—a place reserved for people with a minimum of fifty-year sentences. The long-timers who wanted to learn or improve their reading were forbidden from attending the prison-offered schooling. The state doesn’t see the value in teaching a person with a life sentence whose ineligible for parole or who’s serving three life sentences to read. Many people inside struggle with reading but shame and embarrassment force some to choose even solitary over the embarrassment of being recognized as a struggling reader. I remember a lady named Tameka. She’s been incarcerated since she was fourteen and was reading at a level where she only recognized sight words. One day, she was talking in her reading class, and the teacher reprimanded her, saying, “If you shut up, maybe you can learn to read.” The class giggled. Tameka was twenty-five, and she immediately began doing anything to get placed in solitary. That was her last day in class. She would rather be in solitary than be embarrassed because she hadn’t been taught how to read. 

I couldn’t do my time without reading. Usually, I hear about a book I’m interested in by listening to NPR or reading a review in a magazine. First, I write the prison mailroom to determine if the book and author are approved by the state. If so, I place it on a list I have for friends and family to purchase as gifts for holidays and special occasions. It’s not a fail-safe. I’ve had books arrive, and the status has been changed from approved to denied. No appeal is permitted. Sometimes, the mail lady flips through pages at the door to your cell and reverses the decision. A neighbor could order the same book a week later and have a different mail lady who permits the book. It’s within their discretion. If they won’t let me have a book, I’m given a choice. They can destroy the book or I can pay to send the book to someone on the outside. I’m lucky. I can usually afford to send them home.

Kwaneta Harris is a mother of three and incarcerated in solitary confinement in Texas. It has taken 49 years for her to realize she has a voice. This piece is a condensed version of a longer essay forthcoming in Books Through Bars: Stories from the Prison Books Movement in 2023 by University of Georgia Press.