Washington State Bans Free Books to Prisoners

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(Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash)

By Angela Helm, The Root

In a move that flies in the face of more than 45 years of practice with no incident, the Washington State Department of Corrections has moved forward with a policy denying books to prisons under the guise of safety.

Book Riot reports that the Washington State DOC “quietly rolled out a new policy via a memo on their website last month which disallows books to be donated to prisons via nonprofit organizations.”

It reports:

The new policy limits books to those accepted by the Washington State Library for incarcerated individuals which had already been approved by the Prisons Division, used books from the Monroe City Library directed specifically to the correctional facilities in Snohomoish County, and to those used books purchased by prisoners enrolled in pre-approved correspondence educational courses from the bookstore linked to the educational facility in which they’re enrolled. Individuals have never been allowed to make donations to prisons; those have always had to go through either nonprofits or bookstores.

The DOC claims the policy change is because of a shortage of staff in mail rooms who are not able to gauge if the materials sent are “appropriate” or hiding contraband, reports Book Riot.

One of those nonprofits, Books to Prisoners, was caught off guard because the ban seemingly came out of nowhere.

But as Books to Prisoners notes in a tweet: “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.”

Literacy has been proven to disrupt recidivism, and prison libraries are severely underfunded and understaffed, and are only open for certain hours during the week.

Books to Prisoners has started a petition which it notes has more than 10,000 signatures as of press time. As the petition notes, this ban unduly puts yet another burden on families who are already overextended caring for and traveling to their incarcerated loved ones (to say nothing of phone calls, commissary, and loss of income from the incarcerated individual.)

It reads in part:

For the many prisoners and their families who can’t afford to buy new books, free, used books are a lifeline; for prisoners in solitary confinement (around 80,000 at any given time), these book donations may be the only reading material they have. We love prison libraries and their hard-working staff, but they are chronically underfunded, understaffed, and not accessible for all prisoners or open when needed. In Pennsylvania, for example, prisoners are allowed a maximum of 90 minutes per week at the prison library. Additionally, books checked out from prison libraries must be returned and may not be available at any given time due to circulation; by contrast, books mailed from prison book programs belong to prisoners forever as personal property. Four facilities in Washington don’t even have on-site libraries, an indication of the ongoing need for services like prison book programs to fill the gaps.

Books for Prisoners has also updated its progress against the ban on Twitter.

And if you find this ban as asinine, punitive and anti-evidentiary as we do, you can contact Prisons Division Correctional Manager Roy Gonzalez at rgonzalez@doc1.wa.gov or by phone at 360-725-8839. Express yourself.

This article originally appeared in The Root.

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