Why Are Prisons Banning Used Book Donations?


Prison Library at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Tobias Kleinlercher / Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

BookRiot reported the other day that my home state of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) is in the process of finalizing a policy that would no longer permit the donations of used books directly to prisoners from non-profit organizations. In advance of this policy implementation, non-profits report that a number of correctional facilities have already returned donations, even though these organizations have been approved in the past and there have been no problems with donated books.

Ohio is joining a growing number of states implementing similar policies. In most cases, the policy permits prisoners to receive new books from a limited number of approved venders including an e-book vendor (with compatible reader), JPay. According to the BookRiot article, the newly appointed director of ODRC, Annette M. Chambers-Smith, previously was a general manager with JPay. In New York state, according to a WNYC article, the selection at one point was limited to five vendors offering 77 books, 24 of which were coloring books! And the books are expensive, compared to the donated books, placing a burden on inmate families.

The ostensible reason being given by states for such ban is security–specifically preventing the smuggling of contraband hidden within books–drugs and weapons. This was the rationale given by the State of Washington when they implemented a similar policy. The Seattle Times requested information about specific instances after the Department of Corrections cited seventeen instances of contraband in books. It turns out that twelve had nothing to do with books and only three directly involved books with contraband, and none of the contraband originated outside the prison.

Books to Prisoners, an award-winning Seattle-based non-profit begun in 1973 contends that the same safety rationale arises in every instance, and yet in their entire history, none of their books have been found with contraband. Books to Prisoners led a massive effort that resulted in rescinding the Washington ban (and similar bans in other states like New York) and is pursuing similar efforts in Ohio.

So why are prisons doing this? It may be that with budget cuts, those tasked with screening books are overburdened, and hence the move to a few “trusted” vendors. Yet we are not talking about individuals mailing books but rather trusted non-profits who have been approved and have clean records going back for years. It is hard not to wonder if there are financial interests involved. Some would go further and argue that with the steep increase in incarceration making the United States the world leader in jailing its citizens, that there is what amounts to a “prison-industrial complex” that depends on a population of inmate labor.

Books are a potent weapon in fighting recidivism, the re-arrest and incarceration of previously incarcerated persons. One program, Changing Lives Through Literature saw a recidivism rate of 19% of people in its programs compared to a control group with a 45% recidivism rate. A Rand Corporation study showed at least a 13% drop of recidivism rates with education programs, 13% higher employment, and that for every $1 spent reduced post-incarceration costs $4 to $5.

Death row exoneree Anthony Graves writes in Infinite Hope about how critical books from his prison’s library were in sustaining hope and fostering personal growth, and he even includes a reading list of books that were formative for him. This is a story many prisoners will tell. Yet funding cuts limit prison library hours, sometimes making them inaccessible to inmates. This is why non-profit books to prisoner programs can play such a crucial role, especially when books become prisoner property rather than prison property.

Some would argue that prisons have an interest in controlling what prisoners read. Many states do ban what prisoner’s can read, examples of which can be found at this page on the Books to Prisoner’s site. I was talking with a friend about this and commented that making Mein Kampf available to prisoners might not be helpful. And then I came across this in the American Libraries Magazine:

“In November 2017, The Dallas Morning News exposed such a list in Texas that included more than 10,000 titles. Books like The Color Purple, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Freakonomics are on the list, but others, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf and two titles by white supremacist David Duke, are allowed, the newspaper reported. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reviewed the policy following media coverage of those lists.”

Go figure!

Those who have been most concerted in their criticism of prisons have seen them as an effort to maintain a permanent American underclass that sustains the “prison-industrial complex.” The cynic in me sees these baseless bans of books donated by award-winning organizations as confirmatory of such patterns. I’d like to believe we are better than that. If you follow this blog, you probably believe books enrich and transform our lives. Thinking about restrictions on donations of used books to inmates makes me ask whether I want the same for them. I do not think books alone will solve the issues of incarceration rates and recidivism. I do think they can help. Perhaps they may even help enough that some day we will not lead the world in prison population rates.

Sharing What Gives You Joy


One of the memes doing the rounds on the internet in the wake of Marie Kondo’s video.

Bookish circles around the internet have been buzzing about the Marie Kondo video about tidying up your books, suggesting you identify the 30 books that give you joy, and dispose of the rest. There has been huge pushback among bibliophiles. One I know said “all my books give me joy!” Another said they had more than 30 books just on their nightstand. I think for some of us, a booklined wall (or walls) brings a feeling of safety. When I imagine a “safe place,” the first image that comes to mind is a book-lined library with a fireplace and rich and comfortable leather furniture.

At the same time many of us have far too much clutter in our lives. I’ve also recognized that a certain amount of de-accumulating of books is necessary at this stage of my life and I regularly donate, re-sell, and gift books, and still truly have more than I need–and they keep coming in!

As I’ve reflected on this idea of keeping books that give us joy, I have found that a corollary is giving books that give us joy, and that giving may even be a deeper source of joy than the books around us. It is interesting that we are encouraged to dispose of the books that don’t give us joy (although they may for someone else). Might a more meaningful gift be to share a book that has given us joy? In some cases, we may end up acquiring another copy, particularly if the book is one we want to revisit!

There was an article I read yesterday about physician burnout and how reading helps doctors replenish the emotional tank. We have a primary care doc who we really like, and, over the years, I’ve gotten a sense for the books he likes and I periodically bring one in when I have an appointment. Little did I realize that I might be helping avert burnout, but sharing joy may amount to the same thing.

I take for granted the ease with which I acquire books. Through interactions on this blog and on Facebook, I’ve discovered that this is not the case in many parts of the world, or even in some parts of our own society.  This has led me to begin exploring various ways to respond including donations of theological books. One place I’ve found that accepts scholarly theological works published after 1980 is the Theological Book Network that has shipped books to 1400 schools in the global south.

Prisons are another place often in need of books. The American Library Association publishes a list of secular organizations that accept donations of books. Among Christian ministries, Christian Library International serves over 1,000 prison facilities in the US.

Of course, one of the simplest things we can do is ask the question as we read a book that we really like is to ask who else would like it. One of the delights in sharing books is that when our friend has read the book, we can talk about it, and it adds to the things we share in common.

Of course, there are a number of other ways to share books and bring joy to others. Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist has a great list of twenty places to donate books. He thinks of all the places I know of and many more. Often, it is simply a matter of collecting books in a box and hauling them to a nearby local location. Others provide help in preparing books for shipment.

What I’m proposing is that a joyful life is a giving life. As joy-giving as great books are, finding ways to share those books offers the chance to enhance that joy for ourselves and to bring joy, knowledge, diversion and all the things we love about our books to others. That, it seems to me, is the prize beyond book lined walls and tidy shelves.