A long-standing policy at an Orange County jail that puts tighter restrictions on book deliveries to inmates than those imposed in prisons has irked immigrant families of inmates and local booksellers.
Among the books that have been returned to sender are Spanish-language Bibles and other Christian titles.
Orange County Sheriff’s spokesman Damon Micalizzi said books must come directly from a publisher or a major book distributor for security reasons. State and federal prisons allow any book shipments as long as the tomes are paperbacks.
The Orange County policy is a sticking point for immigrant families that frequent small shops that carry Spanish-language titles, say booksellers and relatives of some inmates. Many of the books sent are religious or motivational, they say.
Religious books sold at St. Teresa’s Catholic Shop in Santa Ana are published in Mexico and Colombia. Requiring inmates’ families to directly contact these publishers “means the county doesn’t want the prisoners to get books,” said shop owner Sam Romero.
Although Micalizzi said the policy had stood for more than a decade, inmates’ relatives and bookstore owners said their shipments of paperback books were accepted until recently.
Rueben Martinez, who owns Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery in Santa Ana, said that 25% of his Santa Ana business has historically stemmed from jail shipments. But in the last six months, he said, that piece of his business has dwindled to 5%.
“All of a sudden, they sent back the envelopes with a stamp that says it must come from the publisher,” he said. “Our clients won’t go to publishers for these books, most of which are in Spanish. Our business could grow more if they made it friendly to the inmates.”
On April 10, Maria Lazarit bought a motivational book at St. Teresa’s and asked Romero to send it to her son at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange. The book was returned.
“To me, it’s a violation of the prisoners’ rights to exercise their religion,” Lazarit said. Her son, Wsbaldo Lazarit, is serving one year on robbery and drug charges, according to county records.
“What I was trying to do was to help my son to think about his life in a more positive way. Why would they would be against that?” she asked.
Micalizzi said the county has no problem with religious books. In fact, he says, Bible deliveries that don’t meet the regulations are not refused but made available to the general population. As a result, he said, there are plenty in the facilities.
However, he said, the county rejects books that don’t come from publishers because “there’s a possibility something could be in one of the pages that we don’t want in the jail: There could be little bits of drugs in the pages.”
Micalizzi said shipments from local booksellers are barred because there is a greater likelihood that the shipper knows the inmate or could be influenced by an inmate’s relative to put contraband in the package.
Micalizzi said there had been no change in the policy’s enforcement in recent months, although inmates’ relatives and booksellers disagreed.
Romero, owner of St. Teresa’s, said he had sent about two dozen books annually for more than eight years to California jails. About three months ago, those sent to Theo Lacy began coming back, while shipments to two other Orange County jails went through, he said.
Paul Wright, editor of the 6,000-circulation Prison Legal News newspaper, has repeatedly sued states with policies that prevent inmates from receiving publications. Prison Legal News is preparing a lawsuit against Utah for a policy that bars book shipments, except those that come directly from Barnes & Noble, he said.
The Orange County policy, Wright said, “sounds pretty troubling for sure,” because it could restrict inmates’ abilities to obtain certain books, he said.
Bill Sesa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state policy was not as strict. Shipments are accepted at state prisons as long as the books are paperback and come from a bookseller or a publisher. The materials are reviewed in a mailroom before inmates receive them.
“We don’t want to censor materials but prevent contraband,” he said. “You are working in an environment where dental floss can become a deadly weapon.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said its jails allow inmates to receive books from booksellers after checking to see whether they can be turned into a weapon, promote violence or have sexually explicit content.
When Orange County does not allow shipments from local bookstores, it’s “a lost opportunity for the people in the jail,” Martinez said. “Books are the best gift you can give anyone, especially in a jail, where there’s plenty of time to read.”