CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- At the urging of The Rutherford Institute and a general outcry from the community at large, the Virginia Department of Corrections has withdrawn a directive forbidding prison inmates from receiving free books from the Charlottesville-based Quest Institute, a non-profit whose "Books Behind Bars" program has distributed more than a million books to 11,000 inmates over the course of its 20-year history.
In a letter to Kay Allison, president of Quest Institute, Inc., Gene Johnson, director of the Department of Corrections, indicated that the Department would restore the prisoners' ability to receive up to three books per month from the program. As Allison noted in a letter to The Rutherford Institute, "There really are no words to describe my gratitude to you. You have turned it around--making a difference for all of the inmates, showing them that there is a way for their voice to be heard!"
The policy change came a day after The Rutherford Institute sent a letter to Director Johnson charging that the months-long restriction on Books Behind Bars amounted to an unwarranted and clear violation of the First Amendment rights of prison inmates who might benefit from the program, as well as the Quest Institute.
"We are pleased that the Department of Corrections came to their senses and recognized that Books Behind Bars has a clear First Amendment right to provide books and information to inmates and inmates have a right to receive them," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "This is a remarkable program, and we're glad to have helped ensure its continued service to the community."
For over 20 years, "Books Behind Bars" has provided books free of charge to prison inmates in Virginia and other states. The program responds to requests from inmates for books on specific topics in order to satisfy the intellectual interests and spiritual needs of individual inmates. Books Behind Bars provides inmates with books for which they have a continuing need, such as dictionaries, books on religion, including the Bible and the Koran, meditation, art, literature and a variety of other topics.
However, earlier this year, Department officials issued a directive prohibiting inmates from receiving books sent by Books Behind Bars. Despite inquiries by Allison and pleas that the program be allowed to continue, the department failed to provide any clear explanation for its act of censorship. When Allison sought to have the decision reconsidered, the ban was extended to all prisons within the Correction Department's Central Region and thereafter to all facilities of the Department. Conflicting explanations have surfaced relating to the ban on materials from the Books Behind Bars program. One account indicates that the ban was allegedly instituted after only one book sent by the program was found to contain paper clips. Another account suggests that the ban was allegedly put in place after program volunteers failed to remove a compact disc from another book.
Yet, as Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out in their letter, even if such incidents reflect legitimate concerns, they do not warrant denying essential First Amendment freedoms to Quest and Books Behind Bars. As Rutherford Institute attorneys stated in the letter, "Various courts have long recognized that the First Amendment protects the right of entities and individuals to send books and information to inmates."