The Washington Department of Corrections quietly released a memo last month banning used publications from entering Washington prisons. Inmate advocates worry the move will stymie access to books.
Many Washington state prisoners depend on book donations from organizations like Books to Prisoners, a Seattle nonprofit that has been donating thousands of books to inmates in Washington, and across the country, since 1973.
"Reading gives prisoners tools for literacy and self-education, self-empowerment, and a connection to the outside world," Michelle Dillon, a volunteer and board member for Books to Prisoners told The Stranger.
Over the last year, Dillon noticed that an increasing number of Books to Prisoners packages were getting rejected by the DOC. She and other volunteers were suspicious. They had seen this happen before in Pennsylvania and New York, where similar bans on "outside publications" had been implemented.
They did some digging on the DOC website last Friday and found a memo that had been posted over two weeks ago. The memo implies that "used publications" are a security risk and that the DOC is "moving away from allowing used publications to enter our correction facilities." The exceptions are books accepted by the Washington State Library, or, for incarcerated students, books approved through their school's official bookstore.
It was directed at employees and outlined new policy changes that would directly impact Books to Prisoners. They hadn't heard anything about it, according to Dillon.
Friends, we have a big problem. The Washington DOC quietly rolled out a COMPLETE ban on prison book programs this month. So quietly, in fact, that they didn't bother to tell us first. We only know now because we found this memo on their website today. We're ready to fight it... pic.twitter.com/R55Y0PKQaC
— Books to Prisoners (@B2PSeattle) March 30, 2019
"We had no heads up," Dillon said. "They have not reached out and it's pretty frustrating, too, because we've been calling and emailing since Friday afternoon basically."
Similarly, the Washington State DOC did not immediately respond to The Stranger for comment. This post will be updated with more information as it becomes available.
The prison system as it exists makes it difficult for prisoners to get books independently of donations. They often don’t have ways to purchase new books.
"I love prison libraries but the issue is that they’re not given enough funding," Dillon, a trained librarian herself, said. "They're only open a certain number of hours each week, there are limits on the number of minutes a prisoner can spend in one each week. It’s frustrating because librarians do a great job, they do their best, but the state doesn’t support them. There's only one dedicated librarian for each branch."
Inmates will write letters to Books to Prisoners. They vary from general I-need-something-to-take-my-mind-off-being-in-this-concrete-box-do-you-have-a-good-mystery-or-thriller requests to more hey-I'd-like-to-learn-woodworking-is-there-a-book-for-that requests. Books to Prisoners will send individual prisoners the books they asked for specifically.
"A lot of people ask for books on entrepreneurship," Dillon said. "We can also never get enough of dictionaries."
Without programs like Books to Prisoners, it's harder for inmates, many who are gearing up to reenter the world after incarceration, to get the books they want or need.
"There’s a limit to access," Dillon said. "These are the gaps we’re trying to fill. We’re really frustrated that this type of ban is being rolled out universally and without any attempt to work with us."
Under the new policies aimed at fighting this ubiquity, the DOC says, inmates can use tablets to access more than 8,500 e-books. Of course, this access depends on two factors: an inmate’s ability to purchase such a tablet, which costs $147, and an inmate’s ability to then buy e-books, which cost anywhere from $2.99 to $24.99.
Due to public outcry, the Pennsylvania ban was amended and book donation organizations were allowed to keep giving books to Pennsylvania prisoners.
Currently, Books to Prisoners is staging a "phone zap" and asking anyone who is concerned about this rule change to contact the DOC personnel listed on the memo.
🚨 NOT A JOKE 🚨
Phone zap today to STOP THE BAN ON BOOKS in Washington prisons.
Call Roy 👇NOW. (Can't make this zap? Later is OK too!)
Then tell us how your call went (https://t.co/nbKoN70PbN) to show the DOC that we are united to say:#PrisonersNeedBooks #StopDOCcensorship pic.twitter.com/2MVT9UPEmI
— Books to Prisoners (@B2PSeattle) April 1, 2019
"We know that public advocacy makes all the difference," Dillon said. "We have networks that are stronger than I ever imagined. We shut down the phones so quickly and as long as we can keep that energy going, we’re not going anywhere. We think that prisoners deserve access to books."