News | Books Behind Bars: Utah State Prison ships inmate book orders out-of-state, and skims the purchase price 

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There is no better way to while away five-to-life than with a good book. Gandhi in his autobiography wrote that he did his best studying in the pokey.

It’s no surprise that books are a big deal in the slammer. And Utah has cut itself in on the action, inking a contract with an out-of-state bookseller that angers both local book merchants and advocates for prisoner rights.

Salt Lake City civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard has worked for years trying to figure out why books from a specialty publisher, Prison Legal News, kept bouncing back from the Utah State Prison. A small, nonprofit bookseller that specializes in books helpful in the Big House, Prison Legal News’ titles include how-to guides on do-it-yourself legal research and prison-life tracts such as Hepatitis and Liver Disease: What You Need to Know.

Now, Barnard thinks he’s discovered the problem. Documents he received from the prison show that, since 1994, Utah has had a contract with bookstore giant Barnes & Noble to service prisoner’s reading needs.

Under terms of the contract, the nationwide chain fills prisoners’ reading requests directly. Prisoners are charged full Barnes & Noble cover price. Utah gets a 20- to 25-percent discount and rakes off the difference. Additionally, the prison commissary tacks on a $1 processing fee for each book.

“The prison is profiteering on a rehabilitation effort being taken by inmates themselves, or being done by inmates’ families,” complains Barnard, who argues a well-read inmate is better for society than one who spent all his time behind bars lifting weights.

Tussles with prisons about inmate access to books are nothing new. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled about 30 years ago that, while prisoners lose many of their civil rights, inmates kept a First Amendment right to reading material.

The right isn’t absolute. Prisons can and do impose restrictions on some subjects. “Lock-picking is probably not a good topic,” notes Barnard. And restrictions on how books are manufactured also are OK. Hardbacks are often frowned upon since they can more easily hide razor blades.

Those safety fears led many prisons to adopt publisher-only rules. That means family and friends can’t mail books directly to inmates, only order them from a bookseller to be sent directly to prison. Utah State Prison goes a step further, requiring that all book orders be made by inmates themselves through the prison commissary.

Barnard complains the Barnes & Noble contract effectively limits access to books. Prisoner requests sometimes go unfilled when books are out of print or not in the Barnes & Noble catalogue, Barnard says. Ever since the prison inked the Barnes & Noble deal, Prison Legal News has had its books sporadically banned, says Prison Legal News Editor Paul Wright. That is particularly troubling since courts have ruled inmates have a greater right to religious and legal materials than to the latest romance novel.

Angie Welling, Utah prison spokeswoman, says the prison’s book policies allow inmates wide access to books while guarding against contraband by dealing with a single, trusted bookseller. “The rationale is not to limit inmates from any publication, nor to discourage local sellers,” she says. “It’s simply security concerns.”

In addition to the Barnes & Noble contract, Welling notes Utah’s prison has arranged with a discount mail-order bookseller to offer inexpensive books to inmates. Prisoners are required to first determine if Barnes & Noble can fill their request. But if inmates can’t find the book they want through Barnes & Noble, prison policy allows orders from other publishers. That provision is explicit for religious and legal material, Welling says. In fact, her search of prison records found several instances in which Utah inmates had successfully ordered books from Prison Legal News.

Welling says the prison system doesn’t profit from book sales. The difference between shelf price paid by inmates and the discount price the prison pays Barnes & Noble only covers the costs of operating the book program.

Salt Lake City bookseller Tony Weller has his own beef with the prison’s Barnes & Noble contract. “It’s not exactly like Weller’s is angling for prison business,” says Weller whose Sam Weller’s Book Store only ever sold about 10 books per year to prisoners. But, Weller argues that if the prison is going to contract for book sales, it should contract with a Utah company.

“It’s very bothersome to those of us who run Utah businesses and contribute, I believe, more to the local economy, that a public institution has an agreement that, in essence, gives exclusive business to an out-of-state operation,” says Weller, who is active with Utah’s Local First movement. “The prisoners, or at least their family and friends, ought to have a choice.”

Welling says the prison solicited multiple bids for its book-sales contract, but doesn’t know if any Utah booksellers were included. The Barnes & Noble contract was inked with Utah Correctional Industries, a quasi-governmental organization that runs the prison commissary, and, unlike state agencies, it is not required to go through a public bid process.

Prison Legal News has sued corrections departments nationwide to gain access to prisons. Last year, the publisher won a California case overturning that state’s system of buying books only from approved vendors. It lost a 1997 lawsuit against Utah when an appeals court ruled Utah prison staff made innocent mistakes in sending back Prison Legal News publications marked “return to sender.”

“These [book] policies are not about security,” argues Wright. “It comes down to the free flow of ideas and information. The big hostility we find is to self-help legal books.”

Wright says no prison has ever rejected one of his books as dangerous. “So why are you banning our stuff? Maybe because there’s no kickback to the prison.”

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