KUNA — About halfway through a Q&A after Anthony Doerr’s seminar at the Idaho State Correctional Institution last month, someone asked if it was the first time he’d spoken to a group of people in prison. The Boise-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist replied it was, indeed, the first.

The room broke into applause.

Doerr wasn’t speaking to the 30 or so inmates in the prison’s chapel because he wanted to promote anything. This wasn’t a stop on a book tour, nor was the event even especially publicized. He donated 30 copies of his award-winning novel — “All the Light We Cannot See” — to the prison library; he wasn’t paid to do it. He had agreed to speak at the prison because he knew a member of the Idaho Board of Correction.

Books in prison — and inmates’ access to information — are not often discussed in popular culture. Yet the prison library Doerr donated his novel to houses 22,000 books.

Still, prison systems across the country, Idaho included, confiscate certain books sent to prisoners through the mail because of security concerns. Doerr’s own novel would not have been accepted in the library if it violated the department’s code. Some states keep a ready list of banned books, and some have review boards to analyze a decision to confiscate a book. Others don’t, and allow officials to make a decision themselves to confiscate a book based on policy and procedure.

Critics claim this is censorship, while prison officials point to a need to manage a safe, secure facility.

In Idaho in particular, prison officials have noticed an increased number of books sent to prisoners containing pages laced with drugs, they said, which leads them to confiscate donated or mailed books with stained pages, for example. In the month of January alone, mail room staff in Idaho prisons confiscated at least 43 books, magazines and other publications sent to inmates in the mail.

Regardless of what’s allowed and what isn’t, no one in the room during Doerr’s talk was dismissive of the power books — even, and perhaps especially, works of fiction — hold for incarcerated people.

“Without stories, we get trapped in a prison of ourselves,” Doerr told his audience.

The inmates he spoke to surprised him in their eloquence, he said afterward. Some of them showed up with pages of notes about his novel. Many of the questions he fielded had to do with the structure and process of his writing. Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt later described a “hunger to learn” in the inmate population, and it was on display the morning of Oct. 24.

Dennis Mintun, an inmate who works in the facility’s library and will be eligible for parole in 2027, certainly understood the power in books.

“I think it’s literally an escape from prison for them,” he said.

‘NOT MUCH OF A BAN ON BOOKS’Like prison systems across the country, the Idaho Department of Correction does ban certain reading material in prison. However, according to Ammie Mabe, the department’s constituent services manager, the department doesn’t keep a list of banned books, nor does it keep a list of books it has banned in the past.

That’s not unusual for a department of correction, said Michelle Dillon, a volunteer with the Seattle chapter of Books to Prisoners, an organization that has been sending donated books to inmates since 1973. Her organization ships about 20,000 books a year, she estimated, and she’s run into problems with departments’ mailing polices in the past.

With no set list of restricted publications, IDOC’s 16-page mailing policy governs which types of books inmates are allowed to receive and what’s prohibited, according to Mabe. The same guidelines govern what books and publications are admitted to the prison’s library, according to the department.

The policy allows “new or used books from a book store or a publisher,” with caveats. Nothing is allowed that describes how to make “weapons, bombs, explosives, alcohol and drugs, drug paraphernalia, or escape materials. Role-playing games and related materials are also banned. While inmates can receive newspapers and magazines, they cannot receive clippings of those publications.

Publications not mailed straight from a publisher or a bookstore are confiscated. People in prison can receive books, but must have someone who is not in prison buy them or arrange for them to be sent from a publisher or bookseller.

“In no state in the country can you just pull a book from your shelf and send it to a loved one in prison,” Dillon said.

The main concern is safety.

“It’s not much of a ban on books,” said Chad Page, chief of IDOC’s Division of Prisons. “It’s more the content and the safety piece.”

Inmates can appeal a confiscation, and decisions to disallow a given publication can be overturned. There are also exceptions to the rules, according to the department’s policy. Hardcover books are generally not allowed because they can be used as weapons, but if an inmate legitimately obtained a hardcover book before 2010, it is allowed. Officials may also allow hardcover religious or educational texts, if they aren’t available in paperback. Written descriptions of sexual encounters are allowed, but pornography and pictures depicting nudity and sex are not.

Still, Dillon said she would like to see more transparency.

“Because we don’t have a good look at what is being denied under those policies, we, as observers, don’t have a good idea if they truly are being rationally applied or not,” Dillon said.

In Colorado, for instance, she said there is a panel of people who review decisions to confiscate a given publication, and decide if it is fair or not. Those decisions establish precedent going forward, so the same logic to allow or ban a book will be applied if another inmate receives the same title in the future. That practice is the result of a the ACLU of Colorado in 2004 settling its lawsuit against the state’s prison system.

The state of Washington, she said, has a three-person panel to review decisions, and one must be a prison librarian.

“What I’d like to see is some sort of policy in every state where every book rejected by the mail room is reviewed by a committee,” she said.

The Idaho Department of Correction is not considering establishing such a panel, according to Jeff Ray, spokesman for the department. The initial decision to confiscate an item is left to prison staff members in the mail room.

Dillon said the transparency is necessary because she’s seen books denied for arbitrary reasons under broad guidelines. She once sent a book about sign language to an inmate, because he wanted to learn to communicate with his deaf son, she remembered. It was confiscated because prison officials in that state were worried it would allow inmates to establish a secret code.

Over the course of her time with Books to Prisoners, and in dealing with various prison systems, Dillon has had books about drawing and art denied on the grounds they contain nudity. She’s run into problems sending the books people donate to her organization because many of those books are used and stained. Prison officials across the country and in Idaho say people smuggle drugs into prison by melting them down and staining them onto the pages of books.

“There’s always the assumption by the people working in the prison system that whatever comes in is going to be used for this nefarious purpose,” Dillon said.

Page, Idaho’s Division of Prisons chief, said prison officials have seen more and more positive tests for drugs, such as Suboxone, in books.

“The last couple of years we’ve seen an increase,” he said.

Want more news like this in your email inbox every morning?
Yes!

Mintun, the inmate who works in the prison library, acknowledged “there’s things people can’t own and that we can’t have in the library.”

He said he understood those restrictions and didn’t feel they were too tight.

Neither did Brian Jean Fletcher, another inmate who attended Doerr’s talk, who will be eligible for parole in 2022. Fletcher pointed out “we can get just about anything,” from Amazon, so inmates are not entirely reliant on donated books — although inmates must have someone who is not in prison place the order for them, since they cannot directly access Amazon themselves.

CONFISCATIONS

Between Jan. 1 and June 21, 2019, the department’s mail room in the South Boise Correctional Complex received 6,978 incoming books for inmates, according to Jeff Ray, spokesman for the department. Of those, 268 books were seized, according to the department. A list the department provided the Idaho Press on Friday did not include the titles, but did show some of the books were stained, or contained nudity, or were not sent from a vendor.

In March, Michelle Grinstead, a graduate student at the University of Washington began working with Dillon for a school project. Grinstead, who is studying library and information science, was among the students who reached out to the Dillon for a project in a class she took on social justice. The students worked with another organization Dillon is affiliated with, the Human Rights Defense Center, where she works as its development coordinator. The students decided their project would include documenting the books banned by prison systems in each state. Each student was assigned a handful of states, and began to send out public records requests about banned titles.

“I had a huge variety of responses,” Grinstead remembered.

Some states, she said, had spreadsheets listing banned titles, or titles that might be banned. Other departments of correction, she said, didn’t respond to her initial request at all.

In May, she started corresponding with IDOC. Mabe sent her 68 pages listing everything prison staff had confiscated in 2019 thus far, which comprised of 5,167 confiscations. Not all of those items were books or publications, though. Those records contained little information about what was taken and why. The spreadsheets simply listed when and where the item was taken, what the item was — such as “book” or “magazine” — and a brief explanation as to why it was confiscated, such as “contains nudity, female nipples” or “covered in stains.” It did not include titles of books.

So Grinstead attempted to narrow her search. She focused on just the month of January. In that month, according to the spreadsheets, officials confiscated 43 books, magazines, calendars and other publications. Of those 43 items, 11 books were confiscated because they were stained and another 13 were denied because they were sent from someone other than a vendor or publisher, or from a vendor not approved by the department. The department allows vendors such as Amazon to ship books to prisoners, and also has a list of book providers prisoners can write to requesting books (various chapters of Books to Prisoners are included on that list, which, at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, is available in the library).

Twenty-two books and magazines on the list the department gave Grinstead were denied in January because they contained nudity, according to the spreadsheet. There were 44 pages of “information” confiscated, and two calendars.

When an item is confiscated, according to Mabe, prison staff members fill out a form about why the item was denied. One copy of those forms goes to the inmate, and another is sent to prison officials. Grinstead asked for the forms associated with each of those 43 items confiscated in January and was told that request would cost $101 to fill.

“That’s just one month’s worth of records,” Grinstead said.

“The main problem is, the confiscations sheets also would not say anything about the title,” Mabe wrote in an October email to other department officials. “It would have the same generic description the spreadsheet has.”

BREAKING STEREOTYPES

Dillon, with Books to Prisoners, said she feels prisoners are stereotyped as not being sophisticated readers. The single most-requested book her organization sends to prisons, she said, is a dictionary.

“There are a lot of assumptions about who prisoners are, and they are not correct,” she said.

Tewalt agreed.

“The stereotype that the inmate population is simplistic is off the mark,” Tewalt said.

After six years as the Idaho State Correctional Institution’s librarian, Robyn Patterson knows that’s true as well. The men she loans books to come from a spectrum of educational backgrounds. Although W. Charles Durrant, the prison’s education program manager, estimates about half of the inmates in Idaho don’t have a high school diploma when they enter the system, there are people in prison who are well-educated.

Part of Patterson’s job is making sure she has enough variety in the library to ensure there is material for a variety of educational backgrounds.

She’s also encountered people who didn’t read much until they were incarcerated, only to discover they enjoyed it later on. Working with people in a prison isn’t vastly different from her previous job as a public librarian — there are the same requests for book recommendations, and the same questions about what the next book in a given series is. The facility library, tucked away in its education building, doesn’t look like prison — on Thursday there were Halloween decorations on the walls above the shelves, and a fish tank housing three bright orange fish.

Patterson laughed when she said she feels the prevailing stereotype about prison libraries comes from the near-medieval conditions depicted in “Shawshank Redemption.” Doerr himself mentioned the stereotype of an empty-shelved prison after his talk.

“Libraries, when they exist, are neutral territory in ways that a lot of other areas in prison aren’t,” Dillon noted.

As one of four inmates working in the prison’s library, Mintun said he sees the library’s regular lendees two or three times a week. Genre fiction does well in prison, Dillon noted, and Mintun said the same thing.

“Our biggest section is fantasy,” he said. “That’s what everybody wants to read, is that sword and sorcery stuff.”

Doerr said he was impressed by the library in the prison where his book would now be available. Stereotypically, he said, prison libraries have been portrayed as barren. He was glad to see those in prison had access to books.

“Any well-made book helps fix isolation,” he said. “It’s ironic because you’re sitting there alone reading it.”

Doerr’s book, Fletcher said, “gives you the desire to want to have faith in the goodness of the human spirit.”

Doerr also said he felt those in prison deserve access to books to make them feel less alone.

“They’re still souls,” he said, “and they still deserve love and attention, just like every other soul on this earth.”

{span class=”print_trim”}Editor’s note — This story has been updated to reflect the following corrections: The students worked with the Human Rights Defense Center to send public records requests to state prison systems. Additionally, Books to Prisoners sends 20,000 books each year.

Support Local Journalism


Subscribe

Load comments