April 3, 2019; Book Riot

Multiple news outlets have reported that the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) “quietly” rolled out a new policy banning nonprofits from sending books to people in prisons.

When they say “quietly,” what they mean is, “did not tell the organizations involved until the policy was already in place.”

The memo was published on March 12th, but went into effect on March 25th, much to the surprise of Books to Prisoners, a nonprofit that’s been sending books to Washington prisons for 45 years. Volunteer Michelle Dillon told the Seattle Times that the organization was getting an increasing number of rejections and didn’t know why, until they looked on the DOC website and found the memo.

They’re not taking it so quietly. The nonprofit and its supports have taken to Twitter, where the public chimed in en masse. For days, they’ve been tweeting, emailing, circulating a petition, jamming government phone lines, and asking for support from Governor Jay Inslee and others.

DOC’s stated justification was, “Currently our facility mailrooms do not have the resources to conduct such thorough review and inspections and contraband into our facilities is escalating at a high rate.” DOC said that people in prison could still access books through the library and the institution’s approved, accredited bookstore.

Paul Constant at the Seattle Review of Books spoke with Books to Prisoners president Andy Chan, who pointed out that the allowance for library access “doesn’t recognize the fact that Books to Prisoners gets plenty of requests for books from those prisons with supposedly full libraries. Clearly, the system isn’t getting enough books into the hands of people who need them.”

The organization also stated,

Given that we’ve sent books without issue since 1973, and currently send to 12,000 unique prisoners across almost every state in the country each year, it would be bewildering if after 46 years of work as an award-winning nonprofit we decided to start transporting contraband.

As of June 2018, a little over 18,000 people were incarcerated in Washington state. That rate has been rising steadily since at least 1970, except a small drop from 2010–2012.

Concrete information that might explain this move, such as examples or rates of contraband found, have not been forthcoming from DOC; they have so far refused to share data. Books to Prisoners shared this anecdote:

In response to WA DOC Secretary Sinclair’s press release announcing reports of contraband, we rebut with the time in recent history when a WA DOC mail room found a spider carcass in our book and declared it an “unknown substance.”

Book bans in prisons are not a new tactic of suppression. NPQ noted last year when the ACLU successfully fought several states’ bans of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Happily, most book bans are reversed when challenged; Larry Taylor, a spokesperson for the Virginia Corrections Department, told American Prospect writer Adam Serwer, “once the cases actually make it to court, the government tends to back down.”

It appears Gov. Inslee, who is running for president and has previously supported books in prisons, would like his DOC to reverse the policy as well. “I’m going to make sure DOC endeavors to find some solution to this problem,” he said.

Until they do, the public appears to be on task. A petition on change.org has nearly 7,000 signatures. PEN America weighed in against the ban as well. Caits Meissner, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program Director, said,

In prison, where incarcerated people are degraded and stripped of personal value, books offer a path back to society, a sense of self, a way back to humanity. None of us—no matter which side of the wall we stand on—can afford what bans on books in prison seem to suggest: that our incarcerated community members are no longer human. That they will only resume being human when, and if, they return home.

PEN America runs its own programs to help people in prison access books, writing commissions, and other opportunities.

Books to Prisoners and its supporters are not backing down, though they could probably use more stakeholders who believe in the power of books and thinking to chime in.—Erin Rubin