A Title Wave of Controversy Va. Ban on Prison Book Program Prompts Protests
Ohanian Comment: It is heartbreaking that they'd deny books to prisoners. I work in a program here in Vermont that sends the children of prisoners to summer camp--and gives each one a book to take home. Owning your own book is a powerful thing at any age.
By Maria Glod
A Virginia inmate studying for his GED asked for a dictionary, explaining that "there's a lot of words I just don't know." A criminal serving his 18th year wanted Christian fiction and Stephen King books. And a 61-year-old woman behind bars requested a how-to book on crocheting and a book of Bible commentary.
The three inmates are among thousands who have received books from the Quest Institute, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit group that has filled such requests for two decades.
But the group's popular Books Behind Bars program might have become a victim of its success.
Virginia prison officials banned the program last month, saying that the security risks are too great and that it creates too much work for busy corrections officers.
The sudden halt has prompted protests from prisoner advocates who say Books Behind Bars -- which has put as many as a million books in cells statewide -- is a relatively low-cost way to help inmates who want to learn.
"All these people would be sitting in their cells doing nothing," said Kay Allison, 78, the program's director and owner of Quest Bookshop in downtown Charlottesville. Officials, she said, "are not looking long term."
Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Corrections Department, said the decision was made after a banned item or items made their way into prison in books provided by Quest. He would not provide details, saying it is a security issue. But he said officials worry that someone trying to smuggle an item to an inmate could use Books Behind Bars to do it.
"Because Quest sent books directly to offenders and utilized volunteers to send these books, there was nothing in place to stop someone from attempting to introduce contraband to an offender by secreting it in a book," Traylor wrote in an e-mail.
Allison said volunteers, who search the books before they are shipped, overlooked two items this spring -- a compact disc packaged in a textbook and a paper clip. She said both were found by corrections workers, who examine each package that enters the prison, before they made it into an inmate's hands. Those two mistakes should not justify killing the program, she said.
Prison officials said Quest can provide books for prison libraries. And inmates who have money can buy books from approved vendors.
But Books Behind Bars supporters said inmates benefit from owning the most frequently requested books: dictionaries, thesauruses, Bibles and Korans. They said that prison libraries have limited collections and that Quest allows inmates with no money to seek specific titles. African American literature and self-help books top the list of sought-after volumes.
Deborah E. McDowell, a University of Virginia literary studies professor and an advocate of the program, said owning a book can encourage inmates to become better educated. McDowell, who has three relatives in Virginia prisons, said that benefits society.
"To me, this makes no sense whatsoever," McDowell said of the state's decision. "I can think of no better use of one's time in that position than to elevate and expand the mind. Reading does that."
Books Behind Bars traces its history back two decades, when Quest Bookshop received a letter from a convicted killer asking to buy a book on Taoism. Allison wrote back, adding a few fliers about lectures the shop held on Buddhism, self-help and other topics. The inmate responded with a list of questions. He and Allison became pen pals.
Allison, who eventually visited the man in prison, said she met someone "who made a stupid mistake one evening of drinking and shot someone." During his years in prison, Allison said, the man had become spiritual and wanted to learn. She wanted to help, and Books Behind Bars was born.
Books Behind Bars gets about 500 letters each month from inmates. Churches and other groups donate books and money. John Grisham has given hundreds of copies of his books.
The program's popularity has contributed to the decision to halt it. Virginia inmates are allowed only 13 books in their cells. Traylor said the steady supply of free books from Quest "led to more staff-intensive efforts of controlling the number of books that an offender had."
Over the years, several state officials have applauded the program. In a July 1994 letter, then-Gov. George Allen (R) said Quest's work "benefited incarcerated offenders, corrections staff and Virginia taxpayers." In a July 2005 letter to wardens, Corrections Department Director Gene Johnson wrote that "it is the belief of both the Department and of Quest Institute that if an inmate is reading, s/he is productively employing his or her time while incarcerated."
One inmate who had gotten a Books Behind Bars shipment sent a letter to Allison to say he had become the first in his family to receive a general equivalency diploma.
"The free books you send me are a blessing," he wrote. "I read everyone of them from front to back." He asked her to send Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway.
Allison, who is appealing the program's cancellation to the state, said she would limit the number of books sent to each inmate at one time or make other changes. But she is hopeful that the program can continue.
"I can't imagine sitting in a cell without any books," she said.