May 4, 2018 / 3:10 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. prison officials rescind policy restricting books behind bars

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. prison officials have rescinded a controversial new policy that would have made it harder and more expensive for federal inmates to receive books by banning direct delivery from publishers, book clubs and bookstores.

A security officer gives directions at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida, U.S., March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Scott Audette/Files

The Bureau of Prisons policy would have imposed a seven-step process with a 30 percent price markup and would have allowed purchases only through a private vendor, according to a copy of a memo by a Florida prison warden.

After the move prompted concern from inmates’ families and prison reform advocates, the agency said on Thursday that the proposed restrictions had been part of efforts to curb contraband from entering the 122 federal prisons.

The memos have been rescinded and are under review “to ensure we strike the right balance between maintaining the safety and security of our institutions and inmate access to correspondence and reading materials,” the prisons bureau said in an email.

The decision to pull the restrictions followed a grilling by Democratic lawmakers of the bureau’s director, Mark Inch, during a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee hearing in April.

Asked about the Florida prison memo, Inch said he was not aware of the policy but that inmates still had access to books in prison libraries.

“I will certainly communicate if there’s a misperception that we are withholding educational and recreational books of any form, because that is certainly not the case,” he said.

Under a 2011 policy, the roughly 183,000 federal prisoners can receive books from a publisher, book club, or bookstore. Inmates at minimum-security prisons can also get paperback books from any source, including family and friends.

At Florida’s Coleman prison, the restrictions were to have taken effect on May 14 and would have mandated that prisoners file an electronic request including the 13-digit International Standard Book Number, according to the March 29 memo by the warden.

The memo was made available to Reuters by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington advocacy group.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a query about how many prisons had already adopted the books policy, nor to identify the private vendor or explain the reason for the price markup.

In January New York state prison officials began sharply limiting the books and packages that could be mailed to state prisoners. Governor Andrew Cuomo canceled the policy after an outcry from inmates’ families and prison reform advocates.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Susan Thoma

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