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PLN mentioned, editor quoted in article about book sales to prisoners

Publishers Weekly, Sept. 1, 2008.
PLN mentioned, editor quoted in article about book sales to prisoners - Publishers Weekly 2008

Booksellers Try to Find the Key in Selling to Inmates

by Claire Kirch -- Publishers Weekly, 9/1/2008

With 2.3 million Americans behind bars—including 1.5 million incarcerated in state institutions—inmates represent a significant market for booksellers, but reaching prisoners can be a difficult proposition, loaded with red tape and byzantine rules. No state allows books to be mailed directly to prisoners from individuals because of concerns that contraband may be smuggled into prisons inside books. Some states require that any books sent to inmates come directly from the publisher; others require only that books be sent from established vendors. And several states require that books be mailed only by vendors approved by that state's Department of Corrections.

Michigan bookseller Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey recently ran into bureaucratic hurdles when he asked state officials about the opportunities to sell books to inmates. Currently, Michigan's DOC authorizes eight online vendors to provide its 50,300 prison inmates with books. Five of the eight, which include and Wal-Mart, are national chains; one is a discount book mail-order company in Connecticut; and another, Prison Legal News (PLN), is a nonprofit magazine publisher in Seattle that markets approximately 45 titles from various presses to inmates through its Web site—self-help titles, law books and dictionaries. Only two vendors are headquartered in Michigan: Borders, the national chain, and Schuler's, the state's largest independent bookseller.

John Cordell, public information officer for Michigan's DOC, said the list of approved vendors is not exclusive, but that any bookseller that wants to send books to inmates must apply to the state's Department of Management and Budget for authorization. “It's just happenstance that only two of our approved vendors are Michigan-based. Having Michigan vendors is something we look at. We believe in Governor [Jennifer] Granholm's 'Buy Michigan First' economic initiative,” Cordell said. “But there's a process. They have to apply like anyone else who wants to do business with the state.”

But Norcross said officials didn't give him any guidance when he looked into selling books to state prisons in the spring. “We always wanted to follow the procedures and we were not told what they were,” said Norcross, who is now in the process of filing an application, after being informed last week of the correct procedure.

While Wisconsin allows books to be shipped to its 20,000 prisoners from any bookstore, it wants only new books sent to inmates. The Wisconsin DOC, in fact, recently barred Madison's Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative from sending any books at all to prisoners after determining there were security issues having to do with new books from Rainbow being mixed with used books collected offsite and sent to inmates through the store-affiliated Wisconsin Books to Prisons donation program. After being contacted by PW, however, DOC officials sent a letter to the bookstore on August 22, asking to meet to discuss “reasonable solutions,” so that inmates may resume receiving books from Rainbow without compromising prison safety and security.

Utah's policy concerning prisoners' access to books is the most restrictive of any state: the 5,000 prisoners in Utah's prison system must order any books through the prison commissary, which in turn places those orders with Barnes & Noble. The commissary, which charges a $1 processing fee on each order, will fill orders from other sources only if B&N can't supply a book. According to Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City civil rights attorney, Utah has contracted with B&N since 1994 to fulfill prison book orders at a discount. But that discount is not passed on to inmates, who are charged full retail price for books. “[The Utah DOC] is making money off the prisoners,” Barnard complained. Angie Welling, a spokesperson for the Utah DOC, disputed Barnard's characterization, explaining that the extra money is used to reimburse staff for ordering books and other related matters.

“We get letters from prisoners asking for books and we can't do anything about it,” said Anne Holman, manager of Salt Lake City's The King's English bookstore, “Why not level the playing field? After all, prisoners are members of our community.” Welling said ordering through one supplier is more efficient than using multiple vendors. But Tony Weller of Salt Lake City's Sam Weller's Books agrees with Holman that the DOC should support Utah's economy by using local booksellers. Utah's policy “is a back door route to censorship,” said Paul Wright, PLN's founding editor, who estimates that his organization ships 400 books each month to prison addresses in each state but Utah. PLN is considering suing Utah's DOC.

“We're the only publisher in the country that challenges the censorship,” Wright claimed, reporting that California's DOC discontinued its policy of requiring that vendors be approved to send books to prisons after PLN successfully sued in 2006. "For 99% of publishers, prisoners are incidental to their readership."