By Nicolle Galteland
SEATTLE —Books to Prisoners noticed a new memo on the Washington State Department of Corrections website in March stating that donated used books could no longer be mailed to inmates in Washington State.
The small non-profit organization decided to challenge that policy by publicizing the memo.
Michelle Dillon, the group’s social media manager, posted a picture of the memo on Twitter, along with a call for followers to help fight the ban. Usually, Books for Prisoners’ tweets draw about 20 ‘likes,’ she said, but in the first hour, this one received more than 1,000 retweets.
“Our organization is pretty tiny,” Dillon said, adding that the response on social media “was unprecedented.” The department has since amended the policy banning donated books.
Books to Prisoners Seattle is one of many independently run non-profit organizations across the country that send donated used books to people in prison. These groups communicate with each other through social media and engage their local communities to help challenge book bans when they arise. Several other states have implemented or attempted to implement similar bans on book donations, but the efforts of groups including Books to Prisoners have begun to roll back these restrictions.
If unchallenged, the surprise memo from the Washington State DOC would have left Books to Prisoners—one of the oldest prison book donation programs in the country—unable to send reading materials to the inmates closest to home. But some volunteers had had suspicions that such a ban might be coming.
Kimberly Wogahn, a veteran volunteer and the current coordinator for the group, said that she had noticed an unusual number of packages were being rejected by the local prisons without explanation. Wogahn and the other Books to Prisoners volunteers were already alert to the possibility of a ban after other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, tried to enforce similar restrictions on packages, including donated books, last year. Those bans were overturned and, as awareness about this issue grows, additional restrictive policies are being uncovered and challenged by activists.
Each restriction on books in prisons is slightly different. In New York, the 2018 policy originally allowed just 77 specific books, many of them coloring books, to be purchased by inmates from a short list of approved vendors. States including Arizona and New Jersey have been criticized recently for censorship. Nearly all prison systems prohibit books with highlighting or bent pages which, Wogahn said, makes it difficult to share textbooks or legal books with inmates.
But, in each instance of prison book bans since 2017, the rationale for the limitations has been the same—safety. The prison systems consistently argue that secondhand books can be used to smuggle contraband and that certain titles in genres ranging from fantasy to political science could incite criminal behavior among the inmates.
The Washington State DOC stated in the memo announcing its ban that the reason for the new restrictions was contraband. It suggested that disallowing used book shipments would stop some contraband from entering the prison.
But the volunteers at Books to Prisoners say they were not convinced. Books to Prisoners in Seattle was formed in 1973 and has never seen a case in which its donations were used to smuggle contraband. Books to Prisoners is a Washington-based non-profit that mails donated books to inmates across the country. Volunteers review letters from inmates requesting books and then curate a package of materials for each of them from a library of donations. Many similar programs operate in other states including others called Books to Prisoners, although each organization runs independently.
Andy Chan has been volunteering with Books to Prisoners since 1994 and is currently the secretary on the board. He said that the volunteers sent over 10.5 tons of books to people in prisons across the country last year.
“We believe in the power of books and reading to change lives,” Chan said. “There are very few downsides, really.”
(This writer volunteered for Books to Prisoners in Seattle in 2011 and has since volunteered for a similar organization in New York.)
Ruth Sangree, assistant to the director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, said her research and writing has focused on the value of education in prisons. Speaking about the value of books to people in prison, she said, “The vast majority of incarcerated people will re-enter their communities. Isolating people is not good from a recidivism perspective.”
Studies on formal education programs in prisons and on literature programs as an alternative sentencing option support the idea that reading is good for inmates’ well-being and reduces recidivism. Sangree also said that the cost of a book is very high compared to the monthly income of many people in prison. “It could be their entire monthly income.” she said. “Non-profits definitely have a role to play in filling this need, and it’s a good way for the public to engage in issues around prison reform.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have both expressed support for expanding access to books in prisons. The ACLU has been challenging censorship in prisons for decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently retweeted an article about access to books in prison highlighting the quote, “By limiting access to books for the 2.3 million Americans in prison, they are curtailing 2.3 million minds from learning and from imagining, and from the hope of education, empathy, and—for a brief moment—escape.”
Books to Prisoner’s release of the Washington DOC memo drew the attention of local activists and celebrities. Writers Neil Gaiman and Piper Kerman, and actor Patricia Arquette, all jumped in to elevate the issue. A post about the ban on Reddit got 47,000 votes and more than 700 comments. Dillon said that Books to Prisoners is fortunate to have a strong network of supporters including other non-profits as well as dozens of other prison book programs across the country, which worked quickly to spread its message.
Over a whirlwind six days, Books to Prisoners organized a petition to repeal the ban and received more than 15,000 signatures. The group also coordinated a rally at Seattle City Hall and started phone zaps, in which supporters called members of the DOC and local politicians to express their views on the ban. Dillon said the resulting deluge of calls completely shut down the phone lines. Supporters also started calling and emailing Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and soon his office was involved as well.
Meanwhile, the DOC attempted to clarify the purpose of the ban and to produce data to support its decision. Joseph O’Sullivan, who covered the story for the Seattle Times, acquired the relevant data from the DOC through a Freedom of Information Act request and found that none of the 17 examples of contraband in books cited by the DOC involved donated books such as those sent by Books to Prisoners. In fact, O’Sullivan reported, several incidents that turned up in the DOC’s report were simply false positives where the word “book” and the word “contraband” were used in the same report. For example, one report mentioned that an inmate was “book’ed for being found with contraband.”
Six days after Books to Prisoners posted the memo on Twitter, the DOC agreed to a meeting with representatives from Books to Prisoners, representatives of Governor Inslee’s office, and lawyers from the ACLU.
On April 10, the DOC released a new memo overturning the earlier memo and approving four vendors for donations to Washington State Prisons, including Books to Prisoners. But Wogahn said that Books to Prisoners isn’t satisfied with this partial measure and that the group is pushing to get statewide acceptance for all donated books.
Coincidentally, between the release of the first and second DOC memos, the Books to Prisoners National Conference convened in Boston. Wogahn said that this was the first national conference in 13 years, providing a rare opportunity for prison book programs to strategize together.
Dillon emphasized the impact the national coalition had on Books to Prisoners’ successful campaign in Washington State. “It definitely helped that the conference was planned and we got to talk to people in person.” Dillon said, “Each group then went back to their networks. We had a very rapid response due to the conference.”
Wogahn said that one result of the national conference was increased interest in book programs coming together to form a national coalition. This may help groups gain recognition as legitimate donors more quickly. Currently, in Washington State, each non-profit needs to apply individually to become an approved vendor for prisons in Washington. Having a list of organizations with shared goals also could help groups communicate and pool resources. Chan said that a national alliance would empower them not only to respond to bans but also to challenge existing restrictions on book donations.
It is unclear what, if not confirmed cases of contraband, has motivated multiple states to attempt to limit prison book programs in recent months. Volunteers at Books to Prisoners noted that, in other states, prisons appeared to have a financial incentive for limiting inmates and their families to buying books through approved vendors. Limited staff time and resources for processing the book donations may also play a role. The Washington State DOC has only cited contraband in its official statements.
When asked about other possible reasons for the ban, Washington State DOC communications director Karen Tacaks responded through email saying that processing book donations is labor-intensive, but she emphasized that the DOC is proud of its partnership with the state library system and the books that are available to inmates. She also wrote, “The Washington Department of Corrections does not have contracts with publishers, vendors or non-profits for book donations nor any financial incentive to limit used book shipments.”
Books to Prisoners and similar organizations continue working for access. News about Ohio restricting access to used books in prisons started getting national attention after the Ohio public media organization WOUB reported on it on April 27. Book programs and activists across the country took action and now the Ohio prison agency has stated that it intends to lift the restrictions. On May 17, activists organized a call-in protesting used book bans in Indiana prisons.