2008/08/05:Wisconsin Books to Prisoners gets stuck in red tape

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners gets stuck in red tape
The Capital Times
Steven Elbow  —  8/05/2008 5:41 pm

The state Department of Corrections administrative code states that the department "shall facilitate inmate reading of publication, including books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets."

So it was a surprise when a volunteer organization called Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, sponsored by Rainbow Books, received a letter in May from Department official John Bett that DOC "will no longer allow books or publications from Rainbow Bookstores in any Department of Corrections Facilities."

"Red tape, what would we do without it," said Camy Matthay, a volunteer with the group.

Matthay said Wisconsin Books to Prisoners has been sending books to prisoners who request them since the fall of 2006, and has had few problems.

While Rainbow Books have had its books banned by individual prisons in Utah and Texas, "currently Wisconsin is the only state that is banning books," she said.

There was a prison in California that required the group to register as an approved vendor, but that matter was cleared up with a phone call.

Bett, the DOC's Division of Adult Institutions administrator, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

DOC spokesman Alec Loftus issued a statement that said, "We are not confident that the proper security checks are in place at Rainbow Books to minimize the chance for contraband to be sent in through the books."

He said that books sent to libraries can be more easily put through security checks than books sent by mail to inmates.

"There is minimal likelihood of contraband being sent in when the book comes from a reputable book vendor and the book is new," he said, because "tampering would be more obvious."

The DOC's policy on inmates receiving publications says nothing about them having to be new, and Matthay said no other prison in the 28 states they mail books to has made an issue over the books being used.

The policy does state that "inmates may only receive publications directly from the publisher or other recognized commercial sources in their packages."

Rainbow maintains that it is a valid commercial source, selling in excess of $500,000 worth of new and used books per year and being one of the largest vendors of textbooks to UW-Madison students, Bett expressed suspicion about the book cooperative.

"Rainbow Bookstore's sponsorship appears to be an arrangement to circumvent Department of Corrections' policy that allows donated books to be sent to our institutions through authorized bookstores," he wrote in a July 2 letter.

In the same letter he said donated books had to go through the DOC's library system "for all inmates to enjoy."

He noted that Rachel Perlman from Wisconsin Books for Prisoners contacted the department's librarian, who requested a written proposal on incorporating the donated books into the prison library system.

A meeting was set up, but Wisconsin Books for Prisoners decided to pull out, according to Bett's letter.

"Our mission is to respond to requests by individual prisoners nationwide," Matthay said.

Matthay said her group was set up to provide prisoners with a valuable resource that could help them learn skills or gain useful knowledge while incarcerated.

Matthay said most of the requested books are dictionaries and thesauruses, but the group also sends out numerous how-to books on construction and starting up businesses.

Most of the books are non-fiction: U.S. history, philosophy, African American history, but prisoners also often request classic literature.

"All sorts of things you would think prison libraries would have stocked," Matthay said.

The effort started with an announcement in a prison newsletter distributed by Prisoner Action Coalition, now know as Prison Watch. Using books collected from drop-off points in Madison and Milwaukee, the project grew nationwide by pen-pal organizations and by word of mouth.

"We grew from receiving five requests a week to receiving well over 50 requests a week from prisoners all over the country," Matthay said.