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OR Prisons abandon book limit in cells

Prisons abandon book limit in cells

Corrections officials had planned to allow inmates no more than 10 at once
Statesman Journal
July 1, 2004


After toiling in a sweaty prison laundry, Danny Walker likes to unwind by reading and writing in his cell at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

It is his fleeting escape from the grinding monotony of prison routines.

"Reading keeps your mind fresh," Walker said, sitting in a cramped cell - 10 feet by 6' feet - that he shares with another inmate.

Walker subscribes to more than 10 magazines, including Home Business, Men’s Health, GQ and Fortune. He keeps his small, personal library " books, magazines and file folders " neatly stacked on two metal shelves.

The 47-year-old convicted arsonist, along with hundreds of locked-up book lovers, recently urged Corrections Department officials to scrap a proposed rule that would have barred inmates from keeping more than 10 books in their cells.

Dozens of residents, including educators, authors and civil-rights activists, also implored prison managers to reject the proposed book limit.

That's precisely what happened this week, when prison superintendents huddled at a systemwide meeting. They agreed to discard a sweeping proposal that spelled out limits for inmates' personal property; everything from socks (10 pairs) and suspenders (one pair) to books (10), magazines (15) and envelopes (50).

Norma Land, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said Wednesday that the prison leaders opted to retain the agency’s existing property rule. Essentially, that rule gives inmates latitude to keep authorized possessions that can be safely stored in their cells or housing units.

"Rather than trying to track how many items each inmate has," Land said, “it just makes more sense to say, Here's the amount of space you have. As long as you can safely store items in this unit, you can choose the allowable items."

Land said she didn't know whether an avalanche of opposition to the proposed rule played any part in swaying prison leaders.

By a June 21 cutoff for comment about the draft rule, the Corrections Department had received more than 450 responses, including more than 350 authored by inmates.

Walker and other inmates warned that tensions were bound to rise within the 12,200-inmate prison system if officials imposed a tight lid on books, magazines and other property.

“This new rule is dangerous, unnecessary and a nuisance for inmates and staff,” Walker said in a letter to the DOC.

The 10-book limit also sparked criticism from rehabilitation-minded residents.

"I think that an effort by the state of Oregon to limit books for prisoners will be met by substantial negative publicity in academic, literary, intellectual and religious communities across the United States and overseas," Portland author Edith Mirante wrote to the DOC.

Josh Laughlin, a Eugene environmentalist, opposed the rule on humanitarian grounds.

"Prisoners are humans, too, and have basic needs just like you and I," he wrote. "One of these is a desire for information and mental stimulation. Books fill this basic need. It would be nothing less than a major human injustice to take away one's ability to read what, when and how much they want."

Corrections officials previously cited two main reasons for proposing broad limits on inmate property: reducing the risk of fire in state prisons and creating uniform limits across the 12-prison system.

A common theme emerged in dissenting letters authored by inmates: reading reduces prison-related stress.

"I can honestly say my books are more important than everything except oxygen, food and water," wrote penitentiary inmate Brian Hill. "My positive mental and medical health will be adversely affected if I lose my books."

Mark Solholm, imprisoned at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Eastern Oregon, said a book limit would increase idle time.

"Free, unused time is an inmate's worst enemy," he wrote. "Books help make our time more bearable."

Other inmates argued that book restrictions would thwart religious studies and self-education efforts.

"Many of us have encyclopedia collections which have volumes A-Z," wrote James John, another Snake River inmate. "I myself am Russian Orthodox, and I have 15 books that contain the mandatory yearly cycle of church reading and praying that are part of my religious faith."

Corrections veterans said that they were not surprised by the intensity of inmate opposition to the proposed limits on their personal property.

"I remind myself constantly that for many of those guys that (cell) is home," said Randy Geer, the prison system's administrator of central mail and emergency preparedness, "and what we do in terms of how we affect their home is going to matter to them in the same way that it would matter to anybody else."