The Washington State Department of Corrections quietly announced a new policy last month in a memo, saying that prisoners can no longer receive used books in prison from nonprofit organizations.
Prisons do have libraries run by the state, and the policy excepts books sent by both the Washington State Library and Monroe City Library, but they have limited resources. As you might expect, there are access issues.
Seattle nonprofit Books to Prisoners has been sending used books to correctional facilities for decades to help with those issues.
“We’ve been in operation since 1973, and we send free used books to prisoners,” Books to Prisoners volunteer and board member Michelle Dillon told KIRO Radio. “Prisoners write in with a letter asking for anything that they want, whether that’s for a dictionary, or a Western. Our trained volunteers choose books from our on-site library to try to connect the best choices with what the person has asked for.”
Eventually, staffers noticed that a bunch of their books were mysteriously bouncing back to them. That’s when they found a notice buried deep in the DOC’s website, explaining the new policy.
The DOC hasn’t explained the exact reasoning behind the policy, although in its memo, it asked staff to “make every effort to properly inspect” used books already in possession for contraband.
“There’s often an ulterior motive involved, whether that’s just continued control of the population, or sometimes there can be a financial motive,” said Dillon. “We can’t speak for the Washington DOC. We don’t know what necessarily the rationale is, other than what they’ve stated, but we know from the history of prison book programs the typical pattern.”
In terms of why prisoners want books in the first place, a microcosm of that can be seen in the book that’s regularly requested the most.
“Our number one request, year after year, since we started is for a dictionary,” noted Dillon. “And a dictionary is a book that most of us don’t even have on our bookshelf anymore, because we have access to the internet at our fingertips. Prisoners don’t have that access to information — they need books.”