Why deny used books to prisoners in Wisconsin’s state prison system?

Keep books flowing to prisons
Reblogged from: By Camy Matthay • November 16, 2009
Greenbay Press Gazette

Why deny used books to inmates in Wisconsin’s state prison system?

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners (WBTP), a project of Rainbow Bookstore, is a volunteer nonprofit organization that provides books to prisoners free of charge. Since the project began in 2006, it has put thousands of books into prison cells statewide.

The project currently receives more than 40 book requests a week. These requests show that prisoners love to read, want to learn more about the world, and want to improve their prospects when they get out of prison.

A prisoner at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) recently wrote, “I would be grateful if you could send me any books about the construction trade and/or business skills.”
“I am interested in any books by or about African Americans. Do you have any books by James Baldwin or Alice Walker?” wrote another prisoner.

The most frequently requested books by prisoners are collegiate dictionaries and thesauruses. The project also frequently gets lists of topics from prisoners who hope some of their interests will be fulfilled.

A recent request, for example, listed the following topics: “1. Beginning Japanese or a Japanese/English dictionary; 2. Barn owls; 3. Vultures or other birds of prey; 4. Ancient Roman society; 5. Ice age animals and humans; 6. Warships of the U.S. from the revolution through WWII; 7. Iron mining, logging, railroads; 3. Something about Upper Peninsula Michigan, 9. Salamanders and amphibians. Thanks for your time,” he wrote. “I hope you have something for me. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners was able to fulfill requests like this until May 2008, when the Department of Corrections (DOC) banned the project. After months of negotiations with the DOC, we succeeded in overturning the ban on new books, but the project is still barred from sending used books to prisoners.

The department’s justification for the no-used-book policy is that the likelihood of contraband being concealed in used books is greater than that in new books. WBTP thinks this is excessively cautionary, unfairly preventing thousands of prisoners from engaging in much-valued self-education.
Nearly every study on corrections recommends reading in prison as a meaningful way of occupying time behind bars and as a preparation for a successful re-entry into society after incarceration.

The no-used-books policy not only undermines the state’s interest in rehabilitating prisoners, it infringes on the Constitutional rights of prisoners to read. The policy also ignores the fact that all prisons in Wisconsin have stringent security procedures for incoming publications.

Ninety-seven percent of prisoners will eventually return to our communities. A policy that denies them meaningful literature, and provokes frustration and bitterness, just lacks common sense.
Wisconsin is the only state banning used books to prisoners.

Camy Matthay is from Madison.