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Federal prisons abruptly cancel policy that made it harder, costlier for inmates to get books

Tara Libert, co-founder of Free Minds, leads a group of members in a 2015 reading and writing workshop.
Tara Libert, co-founder of Free Minds, leads a group of members in a 2015 reading and writing workshop. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Federal prison officials abruptly reversed a controversial policy Thursday that had made it harder and more expensive for thousands of inmates to receive books by banning direct delivery through the mail from publishers, bookstores and book clubs.

The restrictions were already in place in facilities in Virginia and California and were set to start this month at a prison in Florida.

Under the rules, inmates in at least four facilities were required to order books only through a prison-approved vendor and, at three of the prisons, to pay an extra 30 percent markup.

The reversal came after two days’ of inquiries from The Washington Post asking about the vendor, the markup and the rationale for the restriction.

Prison officials said in an email Thursday that the bureau had rescinded the memos and will review the policy to “ensure we strike the right balance between maintaining the safety and security of our institutions and inmate access to correspondence and reading materials.”

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Officials declined to identify the vendor and explain the costs added to the book purchase prices.

For months, the restrictions meant inmates could not have books shipped free from friends and relatives but also could not have books sent directly from online retailers like or book clubs. Using online retailers or book clubs are two avenues many facilities employ as a way to preserve access but reduce opportunities to alter books or use them to smuggle drugs and other contraband.

“You shouldn’t have to be rich to read,” said Tara Libert, whose D.C.-based Free Minds Book Club has had reading material returned from two California prisons in recent months and has stopped shipping to two others because of the policy.

The head of the federal prison system said during a congressional committee hearing in April that he was not aware of the memos his wardens issued restricting book deliveries and that he would clear up any “misperception” that prison officials are withholding books.

Concerns from House Judiciary Committee Democrats were stirred when lawmakers learned of the policy at one Florida facility; however, memos showed the practice extending elsewhere in the country.

Michelle Bonner, executive director of the DC Corrections Information Council, which monitors facilities where District residents are locked up, said limiting book-buying options for inmates stifles “their ability to access information and their ability to better themselves with books.”

Libert said she was thrilled to learn from The Post about the reversal Thursday and that federal prison officials “recognized the importance of having unfettered access to books.”

She also said she planned to remain vigilant to ensure “this is a firm commitment and that they truly understand the educational and rehabilitative impact of books.”

There’s a war on books in prison

The statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons public affairs office on Thursday, while pulling back the policy, noted that “inmate purchased books provide an avenue for introduction of contraband.”

In announcing the policy in March at the United States Penitentiary Lee in Southwestern Virginia, the warden described the “heightened mail monitoring procedures” as necessary to block attempts to smuggle in drugs through the mail and said the policy would “increase the safety and security of staff and inmates.”

It was unclear Thursday how quickly the message from Washington would filter out to the prison facilities throughout the country.

“We are working with the wardens to ensure they are clear that we are not implementing restrictions on book ordering at this time and we will follow up as soon as all issues have been addressed,” a bureau spokesman said.

Last year, the New York State corrections department implemented new restrictions on packages for inmates, including used books, as part of an effort to combat contraband in state prisons. The policy required inmates to order through a small number of state-approved vendors. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo quickly rescinded the pilot program after an outcry from families and prison reform advocates.

Memos from individual wardens to their inmates had described the restriction and how inmates would need to adjust their book buying.

The memos outlined a cumbersome seven-step ordering process that required inmates to submit their requests with the book title, author — and esoteric 13-digit ISBN number of each volume.

The costs to the inmate included a 30 percent markup, according to memos for USP Atwater, the Central Valley facility in California with 1,200 inmates, and USP Lee, which has about 1,300 inmates.

Book orders had been processed weekly and inmates were limited to five softcover books per mailing, according to the memos, first reported by In Justice Today and obtained by the nonprofit CAN-DO, which advocates clemency for nonviolent drug offenders.

At the D.C. Jail, officials allow delivery of newspapers, newsletters and softcover books directly from a publisher, bookstore, book club and community-based organization.

Amy Lopez, the former head of educational programs for the Bureau of Prisons during the final months of the Obama administration, reviewed the book-ordering procedures this week and said she is concerned the limits will significantly slow down the distribution of books in prisons and contribute to reduced literacy.

“When you restrict reading materials, you’re contributing to lower literacy rates and it limits inmates’ connections with the community,” said Lopez, who is now overseeing education at the D.C. Department of Corrections.

The policy already was cutting off access to educational programs like the Free Minds Book Club, whose members are D.C. residents locked up in federal facilities throughout the country. The group’s 600 members in about 50 prisons receive a dozen titles a year, and have most recently read “Hidden Figures” and the memoir “I Am Malala.”

The program pays for the books and ships directly through Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Inmates answer book-discussion questions and correspond with the nonprofit’s staff members.

With limited access to book reviews, inmates often don’t know which titles to choose, making the directive’s requirement that inmates proactively pick titles more problematic, Libert said.

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At a congressional hearing last month, lawmakers pressed the Trump administration to rollback the new orders and ensure the policy is not being adopted throughout the system that houses about 184,000 inmates.

Bureau of Prisons Director Mark S. Inch suggested the restrictions were one way individual prisons are trying to stop people from bringing contraband into secure facilities.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the book-ordering limits seem to be at odds with the bureau’s mission to rehabilitate and educate inmates, and that it would be particularly damaging for indigent prisoners.

“Can you make sure that people who don’t have money have access to books?” Nadler asked the director.

Inch assured lawmakers that inmates still have access to books through prison libraries.

“I will certainly communicate if there’s a misperception that we are withholding educational, recreational books, legal books of any form, because that’s certainly not the case,” Inch said.

House Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that in the two weeks since that hearing, they had not received a follow-up response from federal prison officials.

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