Virginia's Unnecessary Decision to Stop a Books Program for Inmates

Saturday, September 12, 2009

FOR SOME 20 years, Quest Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville, has been sending free books to Virginia inmates. Last month, with little warning, Virginia correctional officials cut off the program.

The problem, as reported by The Post's Maria Glod: Security personnel who screen all personal items sent to prisons found contraband -- a CD and paper clips -- inside books sent by Quest.

Virginia officials were right to react to the security breach, but not in such an extreme and counterproductive way, especially given Quest's two decades of stellar service to inmates and the community.

Unlike books in prison libraries, which have to be returned after two weeks and cannot be checked out again for some time by the same inmate, the books that Quest sends become the property of the inmates. According to Quest, the most requested books are dictionaries, thesauruses, the Bible and the Koran.

Books headed to Virginia prison libraries are screened twice, according to a prison official: once as they arrive and again as they are being put on the library shelf. Books for an individual prisoner are searched only upon arrival. A second layer of screening, this official said, would prove too onerous to overburdened security personnel, especially because prisons often receive many more books for prisoners than for the library.

So limit the number of books Quest may send at any one time to individual inmates. Or ask Quest's worthy volunteers -- many of them University of Virginia students -- to beef up their efforts to guard against contraband. But don't kill a rare and successful program that gives inmates a chance to educate themselves and, maybe, prepare for a better life on the outside.

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