Do Jails' 'Approved Vendor' Rules Keep Out Drugs, Or Books?

By Jack Karp | May 31, 2024, 7:02 PM EDT ·

blue bookstore exterior

Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, recently filed a federal lawsuit after learning that the Gwinnett County Jail's "authorized retailer policy" barred it from sending books to local prisoners. Such policies, which typically only allow major retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble to send material to prisoners, have become increasingly common at correctional facilities across the country. (Courtesy of Luis Correa)

Bookseller Luis Correa was frustrated at first, and then angry when he learned of what he called the "Byzantine rules" governing who can send books to prisoners in the county jail.

Correa, who until recently was the operations manager of the community-focused Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, was helping a customer send books to a prisoner in the Gwinnett County Jail. When the facility rejected the book, he started looking into why, he told Law360.

That's when he found out about the jail's "authorized retailer" policy, under which only Amazon and Barnes & Noble can send books to incarcerated persons.

"It basically meant that community-based businesses like us that were really using our bookselling as a form of expression were being completely blanket-banned from sending books," Correa said.

The Gwinnett County Jail is one of a growing number of prisons and jails across the country that allow only approved retailers – usually major chains – to ship books to incarcerated people, say experts, who warn that facilities are increasingly limiting all physical books rather than their content.

Corrections officials say the policies are necessary to keep drugs and other contraband from being smuggled inside. But prisoner advocates say the rules only keep out books, violating the First Amendment, and costing prisoners and their families money they can't afford in the process.

So Avid Bookshop and Correa launched a potentially first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Georgia federal court in March, becoming what appears to be the first bookstore to challenge a jail's approved retailer policy.

"I know I can't completely overhaul the prison industrial complex," said Correa, who has since left the bookshop but remains involved in its lawsuit. "But if I can find one way for Avid to make it a more humane experience, I'm happy that this lawsuit is going to try to do that."

Restricting Books Based on Who Sent Them

Practically all jails and prisons limit what books prisoners can read, but increasingly, those restrictions have nothing to do with the books' content, say prisoner advocates.

smiling man holding book

A photo of Luis Correa, the former operations manager of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. (Courtesy of Luis Correa)

More and more facilities like the Gwinnett County Jail are implementing "approved vendor" or "authorized retailer" policies, which bar all books that are not mailed by specific, usually large national or chain, booksellers.

Under the regulations in Gwinnett County, incarcerated people can only receive books sent by Amazon or Barnes & Noble, according to Avid's March complaint.

"Avid is in the business to share ideas and books with the community, and it considers people inside the jail to be part of the community. And they have been told that they can't speak," the bookstore's attorney, Zack Greenamyre of Mitchell Shapiro Greenamyre & Funt LLP, told Law360. "The way they want to speak is they want to get books to people, and they just can't do it because of this policy."

Avid's booksellers are not alone in being barred from sending books to a prison or jail.

When literature advocacy nonprofit PEN America contacted prison mailrooms for a 2023 report on prison censorship, 84% of those facilities reported that they only accept books from approved vendors.

The number of Arkansas jails restricting books in this way jumped from one facility in 2015 to eight in 2023. The number of prisons in New Mexico with such policies rose from four to 12 over the same period. Every facility in Maine now requires that books come only from approved vendors, according to that report.

"Approved vendor policies are really everywhere, and increasingly they're being used to just limit First Amendment rights of not only incarcerated people but small business owners and people who are just members in the community," said Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America's Freewrite Project.

Prison officials say the policies are necessary to ensure security. Books shipped by Amazon and other large book chains are not handled directly by friends or family of incarcerated people, so they can't be used to sneak drugs or contraband into facilities, they claim.

"This is to ensure that associates of the residents cannot soak pages in drugs or otherwise create safety issues. We cannot approve bookstores, like Avid, that are open to the public," the general counsel for the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office told Avid in a letter when the store tried to appeal its books' rejections, according to the complaint.

"The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office policy maintains the safety and security of our staff and inmates. It does not limit the content or subject matter of the publication, but only the origin of the shipment," Sheriff Keybo Taylor told Law360 in a statement, adding that he would not comment further on pending litigation.

But policies like Gwinnett County's violate the First Amendment rights of unapproved retailers like Avid, according to Greenamyre.

"There's a rich history of courts saying just because someone else is allowed to speak doesn't mean that the person who is deprived of the ability to speak is not harmed by that," Greenamyre said.

"Anytime government gets to decide who can speak and who doesn't get to speak, that puts all of us at risk," he added.

The Cost of Censorship

Jails and prisons are not just restricting physical books sent by unapproved retailers, say prisoner advocates.

Many facilities also ban hardcover books under the rationale that a hard cover can be used as a weapon, according to Kelly Brotzman, executive director of the Prison Book Program, which has been sending free books to prisons since 1972.

"You can't stab anyone with a cardboard shiv, but they think you can," Brotzman said. "It's silly."

Other prisons ban used books or books marked by pens or Sharpies, concerned that Sharpie ink could contain drugs.

Prisoner advocates insist these concerns are unfounded, with one advocate quoted in PEN America's report calling them "urban legends."

But the Muskingum County, Ohio, Prosecutor's Office on May 22 announced the indictment of 14 defendants on charges that they smuggled small squares of paper soaked in methamphetamine or suboxone into Ohio prisons.

The conspiracy included "an elaborate plot to publish and sell an actual novel-style book with its pages soaked with drugs," according to prosecutors.

Whether books are being used to sneak drugs into prisons or not, the rules those fears have sparked are particularly problematic for book programs like Brotzman's that rely on donations of used books and remaindered books, which stores often mark with a Sharpie down the spine, she said.

The restrictions on physical books also force incarcerated people and their family members – who come disproportionately from poor communities – to purchase new books at full retail price, according to Brotzman.

"Pretty much any prison will take a book if it comes from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble, but they don't give books away for free," Brotzman pointed out. "We do."

Missouri, for instance, instituted a policy in 2023 barring families from sending books to incarcerated loved ones and requiring family members instead to deposit money in prisoners' accounts so they can purchase books from approved vendors, according to Marquis.

The Missouri Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment. But in an announcement of the policy, the department said, "This change allows the department to continue our effort of improving practices to limit the avenues used for introduction of drugs and contraband into facilities."

The change also allows Missouri prisons and jails, many of which charge a fee for each deposit into an incarcerated person's account, to make money off those book purchases, Marquis pointed out.

"So the burden of this largely falls on incarcerated people's families," she said. "If people inside don't have anyone on the outside to support them financially, they're just excluded from being able to read."

The policies don't just cost incarcerated people and their families financially. They also cost the community, according to Correa.

Athens-based Avid Bookshop pays Athens property taxes and Athens sales tax, and creates jobs for Athens community members, he explained. Amazon and Barnes & Noble do none of that.

"When you depend on big retailers like this, it really takes money out of the community," Correa said.

'No Hoops They Can Jump Through'

The Gwinnett County Jail's policy doesn't just infringe the First Amendment, Greenamyre argues, it is also unconstitutionally vague in violation of the 14th Amendment since it offers no criteria for designating authorized retailers, potentially allowing for arbitrary and even discriminatory application of the policy.

"There's nothing they can do to get their books into this facility," Greenamyre said of Avid. "There's no way to get approved. There's no hoops they can jump through. They just can't do it."

Many prisons with authorized retailer policies offer little explanation for how retailers can get authorization to send prisoners books. The policies are often implemented or changed with little notice, and some facilities don't even list who their approved retailers are, say prisoner advocates.

"There's no transparency in how this is decided, which bookseller is approved and which isn't. And there's no process by which to apply to become an approved vendor," Marquis said.

Correa learned this firsthand, encountering what he called a "wall" when he tried to find out how Avid could send books to the county jail.

"What I was seeing was that it said 'authorized retailers, authorized retailers.' I figured, we're a retailer," Correa remembered. "But when I asked what it took to become an authorized retailer, they said, 'It's just Amazon and Barnes & Noble.'"

In fact, Avid was told by Gwinnett County officials that the county jail could not take books from any brick-and-mortar bookstore. But Barnes & Noble, one of the jail's two approved retailers, has plenty of brick-and-mortar stores, Greenamyre pointed out.

"It doesn't make any sense, and it seems irrational," he said.

That seeming irrationality is a hallmark of prison book censorship, applying to both content-based and content-neutral censorship, say prisoner advocates, who describe rules that vary widely from prison to prison, are constantly in flux and are inconsistently applied even within the same facility.

"The restrictions vary dramatically state by state, really dramatically," said Ben Schatz, a public defender and the director of New York-based Books Beyond Bars, about both content-neutral and content-based censorship.

"And then they're enforced kind of arbitrarily depending on who's in the package room, what their mood is that day, and a whole variety of other things that sort of results in a total mishmash of standards when it comes to enforcement," said Schatz, who added that most of the book rejections he sees are not content-based.

Facilities often don't give any reason for why a book was rejected, and book programs like Schatz's and Brotzman's are rarely even told a book was rejected.

"The far more common scenario is they just chuck them, and we have absolutely no way to know exactly how often that happens," Brotzman said.

'We're Coming for This'

Avid's lawsuit isn't the first legal challenge to prison book censorship, but it may be the first time a bookstore has challenged an approved vendor policy, according to Marquis.

She says she hopes to see more lawsuits like it. Challenges to prisons' vendor rules could be more successful than challenges to content-based censorship, which often get bogged down litigating book by book or even sentence by sentence, Marquis said.

"Bringing cases to court like this for booksellers or publishers, I think would send clear messages to DOCs that we're coming for this. Don't do it unless you're ready to go to court," she said.

That's what Correa hopes Avid's lawsuit against Gwinnett County will accomplish.

The case is in very early stages and Gwinnett County has yet to file an answer to the complaint in court, but Correa says he feels "really good" about its chances at changing the county jail's policy so more incarcerated people have access to more books.

"I feel very strongly about books being able to provide a window into other people's worlds," Correa said. "So being able to give that window into someone else's heart and soul while people are experiencing likely the worst time of their life while incarcerated, I think would be not only life-changing for them, but for the world."

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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