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Walsh: Don't be miserly with books

Published September 18, 2008 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

- Dr. Seuss, "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!"

In make believe, prison books usually are diversions - a Bible carved out to hide the rock hammer in "The Shawshank Redemption" or a field guide full of clues about The Company in "Prison Break."

In real life, prisoners actually read.

And one civil rights attorney says Utah's Department of Corrections is profiting from inmates' craving for the written word.

Since 2004, the state has had an exclusive contract with Barnes & Noble to sell books to prisoners. The Department of Corrections' commissary charges a $1 processing fee and pockets the difference between what inmates pay and what the bookseller charges.

Attorney Brian Barnard calls it "profiteering."

"The prison is making money, pure and simple," he says.

Corrections spokeswoman Angie Welling insists the money is used to cover staff costs, including searching and marking the books. After ordering 1,015 books and collecting the discount, prison commissary managers figure they actually lost $4,300 in fiscal year 2008, Welling says.

"It's not a money-making venture. It's a service we provide - a valuable service. But the perception that we're skimming off the top is simply not true."

Now, I know murderers and drug dealers aren't sympathetic victims. Many taxpayers might figure the criminals are simply contributing a little bit toward their room and board. Some restrictions are reasonable: limiting access to obscene or violent books and magazines, for example.

But there are bigger reasons to be concerned about Corrections' contract with Barnes & Noble.

First, reading in prison apparently is rare. Only one in five Utah inmates ordered books last year. Nickeling and diming inmates just discourages them from buying more. The humanizing effects of a good book are lost in penny-pinching. Eventually, most prisoners get out. I'd rather they spend their time reading than watching "Wipeout."

"Corrections should pass the savings on to the inmates to encourage them to engage in constructive behavior," says Barnard. "We want them to be better people upon their release. Reading as part of rehabilitation will make them better people."

Second, the contract with Barnes & Noble is not competitive.

By cutting local independent bookstores and online companies out of the mix, Utah has the most restrictive prison-book policy in the country, according to an article from Reed Business Information.

This year, Corrections renewed the contract through 2012. Critics say that favoritism leads to de facto censorship. Sometimes, the commissary and Barnes & Noble tell prisoners the books they request are not available or "out of print," says Barnard, when in fact the books are available at another bookseller.

Welling says inmates have other options, and that sometimes prison staff member will try to find the requested books themselves.

Salt Lake City's King's English bookstore occasionally gets letters from prisoners requesting books but is unable to respond. Manager Anne Holman would rather state officials include other booksellers in the program.

"Doing that kind of stuff behind closed doors really leads to censorship," Holman says. "They're picking which books people are able to get."

walsh@sltrib.com