Books Behind Bars Nixed by State Prison System

The state prison system has shut down the locally-based Books Behind Bars program, Maria Glod writes in tomorrow’s Washington Post, because they’ve deemed it a security threat. As first reported by Bryan McKenzie in Monday’s Daily Progress, the twenty-year-old program has been banned by the Virginia Department of Corrections. Operated out of and funded by the Quest Bookshop on West Main, the program functions without taxpayer dollars, for the purpose of allowing prisoners to better themselves through literacy and education. They’ve provided an estimated one million books to prisoners over the years, according to the Post. Prisoners make requests for books—the dictionary and the Bible are especially popular—which Quest fulfills by mailing books directly to the prisoners, free of charge. The books are treated like anything materials mailed to prisoners, inspected by officials for contraband before being given to prisoners. After prison officials found a CD left in one book and a paperclip in another, they deemed the program both a security threat and a waste of prison employees’ time, and informed Books Behind Bars that they could not send books to prisoners.

Note that prisoners can purchase both books and CDs from approved vendors, and they are permitted to keep up to thirteen books in their cell. So they can receive books, and they can keep books, but they just can’t receive books from Books Behind Bars.

The program’s founder—Quest owner Kay Allison—has asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider their decision, but lacking some sort of pressure other than that of a 78-year-old woman asking nicely, there’s no good reason to think that they’ll change their mind.

18 thoughts on “Books Behind Bars Nixed by State Prison System”

  1. Unbelievable.
    I do have to say I am impressed that Bryan McKenzie and the DP covered a story before the Washington Post. Things are looking up.

  2. So when they weren’t finding “contraband”, it wasn’t a waste of prison employees’ time to check every book? Hm.

  3. If books and CDs can still be sent to prisoners, then the prison employees are still spending their time searching for contraband. Seems that prison officials have a grudge against Books Behind Bars. Kay should raise a stink about this double standard. I wonder if Kay can send books to prisoners as a private citizen and not a business? Would she still be banned from sending books?

  4. Sad. No taxpayer dollars involved — I thought that was what so many people said they wanted, charity coming from individuals rather than the government. Opportunities for prisoners to improve their minds and therefore rehabilitate their behavior — I thought that was another thing we want as a nation. This just seems perverse and gratuitously punitive to me.

    I understand that prisoners can continue to get books from the prison library, but prison libraries tend to be kind of understocked, from what I’ve read (plus, they’re funded by taxpayer dollars!), so it’s probably easier to get a book you want from Books Behind Bars. Plus, isn’t it valuable for the prisoners themselves to know that someone believes in them and their prospects for rehabilitation? Doesn’t that help in the rehabilitation process itself to know that someone somewhere is willing to give you something? This just seems a huge shame.

    Maybe John Grisham will pitch a fit. I understand that he contributed many many books.

  5. Watch out for those charitable, Christian, 78 year old ladies. Always causing trouble. The only thing I could see the jail being upset about would be the potential for used books, donated by questionable sources that perhaps “knew” what to donate and then let the inmates “request” that title. Very easy to smuggle in contraband that way. But if its only “new” books, out of the crates then I do not get it.

  6. I’m going to guess that the “approved vendors” are partnered with the prison system and so charge huge prices and kick back to the prison system- under the guise of offender restitution. This is often the case for jails in other states.

    In which case Books Behind Bars was cutting into the profit margin.

  7. Does anyone have any thoughts about how to effectively protest this very unfortunate decision? Are Warner and Webb most likely to be able/willing to bring pressure?

  8. As I understand it, the Books Behind Bars books are used, donated books. There may be some new books (like the dictionaries) provided by donated funds

    The approved vendors are companies such as Amazon that send new, sealed-up books directly to the prisoner’s address. These must be purchased, of course.

    The Books Behind Bars were free.

    Individuals cannot mail packages to inmates, as far as I know. My experience has been with sending mail to the Charlottesville/Albemarle jail and some of the medium level state prisons.

  9. Well,if the books are used, and there fro donated then its pretty easy to slip in drugs, or razors etc. That would do it for me if I was a prison guard….

  10. Well,if the books are used, and there fro donated then its pretty easy to slip in drugs, or razors etc.

    I don’t see why. For starters, new books are no different than used books—it’s not like new books come wrapped in plastic with a special holographic seal on them so you know if they’ve been opened. People donating books don’t direct to whom the books go, so there’d be no point in just giving away drugs to random strangers. And I don’t know what makes people earning $10/hour at a bookstore less likely to attempt to send contraband into the prison than anybody else.

  11. Really, so you do not think that 90 Day Drug Duane sitting off of Avon Extended cannot tell his spouse to dip page 31 of “Catcher in the Rye” with some Blotter, then donate it to the Quest Bookstore, then Duance makes a request for a copy of say….”Catcher in the Rye” to the nice lady over there…

    Or that Aryan Brotherhood Bubba might have someone drop off a copy of “The Help” with a razor blade in the spine. He then makes a request for “The Help” and then visits Mexican Mafia Roberto to discuss the themes of racial tension.

    Used books come from someones house and have been in the hands of who…? New books come from the factory warehouse, by the case. And since one sees so few gangbangers working down at the Dominion Bookstore these days…

  12. I don’t doubt that it’s entirely plausible that materials could be smuggled in via a used-book program—which is why all of the books are checked before prisoners can have them—but I cannot see that it’s any less safe than providing new books. There is simply no difference between a new book and a used book in terms of security. Prisons aren’t buying cases of books—prisoners are buying them one off, from vendors, and these vendors aren’t New Dominion—they’re big companies distributing these things via mail order, not your friendly local bookseller.

  13. “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.

    Doesn’t seem like Quest doesn’t provide real security.
    Since this is not a federal prison system why try to enlist Webb or Warner? Locally our state representatives are Bell and Toscano.

  14. “Doesn’t seem like Quest doesn’t provide real security.” should read “Doesn’t seem like Quest provides real security.”

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