A Title Wave of Contention: Va. Ban on Prison Book Program Prompts Protests

Kay Allison, left, and volunteers help re-shelve books that had been boxed to send to prisoners from Allison's bookstore
Kay Allison, left, and volunteers help re-shelve books that had been boxed to send to prisoners from Allison's bookstore "Quest." (Stephanie Gross - For the Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

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.

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