Va. Prison Officials Reverse Ban on Books Behind Bars Program

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Virginia inmates will once again be able to receive free Bibles, dictionaries and other books from a nonprofit group, after state prison officials reversed a recent decision to ban the popular Books Behind Bars program.

The 20-year-old effort, run by the Quest Institute in Charlottesville, was halted last month after prison officials said that security risks were too great and that the influx of books created too much work for busy corrections officers.

But after protests from supporters, Corrections Department Director Gene M. Johnson said he will allow Books Behind Bars -- which has put as many as 1 million books in prison cells statewide -- to resume. In a Sept. 15 letter to Kay Allison, the program's founder, Johnson said each inmate could request up to three books a month.

"At this time it is my intention to restore the opportunity for inmates to request three free books per month through the Quest Institute while strengthening our procedures for the introduction of materials into [Corrections Department] facilities," Johnson wrote.

Community members, lawmakers and others came forward to support the program, Allison said.

"I'm ecstatic," she said. "This is a victory for the inmates."

Prison officials decided to stop the program after contraband made its way into prisons in books provided by Quest. State officials would not provide details, citing security issues. But they said they worried that someone trying to smuggle an item to an inmate could use Books Behind Bars to do it.

Allison said volunteers who help sort and search books before they are sent to inmates overlooked a paper clip and a CD packaged in a textbook. She said that both items were found by corrections officers and that neither made it into the hands of an inmate.

In the letter, Johnson wrote that "introduction of contraband of any kind into any correctional setting is a very serious matter."

"I trust there will be no problem with such an occurrence happening again regarding materials distributed by the Quest Institute," he wrote.

Allison said volunteers will take extra care to inspect each book.

Inmates write to Quest, asking for specific titles or topics. Dictionaries, Bibles and the Koran are the most frequent requests. African American literature, self-help books and novels are also popular.

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