Wisconsin cracks down on reading by prisoners

Printer-friendly version

The bureaucratic mind never ceases to amaze.

The Department of Corrections has decided it is just too risky to allow a non-profit, in-state group to send free books to inmates in Wisconsin prisons.

Citing security concerns that the books somehow might contain contraband, Corrections has informed Wisconsin Books to Prisoners that it will no longer allow the group to send books to prisoners.

The non-profit, all-volunteer group had been shipping its books through Rainbow Books, a Madison cooperative that has been in business for nearly 20 years.

Rainbow Books, DOC says, is not on its approved list of vendors, and DOC allows only new books to be sent from approved vendoers.

But the DOC administrative code does specify that books and publication must be new. The code says: “The department shall facilitate inmate reading of publications, including books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets.”

The policy also states that inmates may receive publications directly from commercial sources.

That, of course, takes money. If a prisoner has money, he/she is free to order from Amazon or bookstores and have books shipped directly.

That's not who this project is trying to help. It offers free books to indigent prisoners, who otherwise are limited to what they can get from a prison library -- which have tight restrictions on how many books a prisoner can borrow (like one), how often, and for how long.

DOC told the project it is welcome to donate the books to prison libraries instead of sending them directly to prisoners, but that doesn't solve the problem of too little access to resding materials.

John Peck, one of the project's organizers, told Wisconsin Public Radio that Books to Prisoners tried that earlier, but found after the books were donated that they didn't end up in the library system.

"We don't trust the library system to actually provide books to prisoners." he said.

Is there a need for the service? From the group's website:

Incarcerated individuals send us their requests for books directly. We provide what we can from our library of donated books. Since Jan. 2007 we've sent over 500 packages (containing 2 - 3 books) to 23 different prisons, centers, and jails in Wisconsin, as well as to prisoners in 13 other states. On average WBTP now receives between 20 – 30 book requests and thank you letters each week.

Many of WBTP volunteers are involved in other grassroots efforts to challenge the prison industrial complex such as doing educational programs within prisons, working with former inmates and affected families on policy changes, and informing the public about alternatives to incarceration.

Could that activism be part of the problem? That, coupled with its partnership with Rainbow Books, a progressive, lefty co-op operation, no doubt makes it suspect in the eyes of prison officials.

Poor Alec Loftus, the spokesman who got stuck defending this policy to WPR, said DOC is not confident proper security measures are in place at Rainbow to keep contraband out of the books.

Peck says the books are carefully screened for contraband. The website warns:

While some prisons accept hardcover and slightly used books, the best donations are new softcovers. Prisons will not accept books that contain any handwriting, margin notes, or highlighting.

What is DOC afraid of -- microdots of microfilm with secret instructions on how to dig a tunnel? Pages soaked in LSD?

Words are powerful. But they are not such a threat to the prison system that they should be banned.

When I first heard of this project last spring, I thought it was a stroke of genius, and contributed some slightly read books and some money for postage. I've been setting aside a stack for my next donation, which I'll make soon. I hope that, somehow, some of them end up in Wisconsin.

You can donate at one these locations:

Fair Ground Coffeehouse, 5901 W. Vliet St., Milwaukee; Lakeside Press, 1334 Williamson St.,Madison Infoshop, 1019 Williamson St., and the infamous Rainbow Bookstore, 426 W. Gilman, all in Madison; or help in some other way.

You might also want to let DOC Secretary Rick Raemisch know what you think of this foolishness: Phone:(608) 240-5055, FAX: (608) 240-3305 Email