Washington State Secretly Bans Books Donated to Prisoners

Last month, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) quietly established a policy through a memo on its website prohibiting the donation of books to prisons. Many books arrive in prison through the efforts of nonprofit organizations, which were taken aback by the implementation of the ban. Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based organization which has mailed free books to incarcerated individuals since 1973, has pledged to fight the ban, The Seattle Times reported. The organization collects books on an array of topics, including genre fiction, politics, foreign language learning materials (particularly Spanish), anthropology, fiction, and African American history. The organization also sends dictionaries and thesauruses.

In its memo, the DOC said it lacks the resources to review materials in its mailrooms, and noted an increase in contraband, the Times reported. As a result, books must come through the state library system, which also replenishes prison libraries. Books to Prisoners relies on the help of volunteers who find and send books that are suitable for people in prison. The new policy could pose a hurdle to their mission, while at the same time limiting the access of literature to incarcerated people.

“Given the chronic underfunding, it’s a huge problem if prisoners are only going to have access to books through their libraries,” Michelle Dillon, board member and volunteer for Books to Prisoners, told the newspaper.

According to Books to Prisoners, fostering a love for reading while behind bars could bolster “the pursuit of knowledge and self-empowerment, and break the cycle of recidivism.” The organization also believes that the Washington State Library (WSL), which lacks funding and resources, “is being used as a scapegoat — they have no special search procedures,” the website BookRiot noted, citing a tweet from the organization.

“It has been confirmed that they have no special staff or screening procedures, nor are they being given any extra staff or money to deal with any influx of books. The policy is using them as a pawn,” Books to Prisoners told BookRiot.

College professors, including Columbia University’s Christia Mercer, believe that access to materials and education is of paramount importance “because studies estimate that illiteracy rates in prison populations run as high as 75 percent.” Although access to reading materials could mitigate the nexus between illiteracy, criminal action, and high recidivism rates, Mercer admits that it is becoming more and more difficult to get a hold of literature in US prisons, mostly “in the name of safety.”

Mercer also cited a 2016 report from the Marshall Project, which revealed that incarcerated people who don’t complete high school are 10 percent “more likely to be arrested again than those who got a high school diploma.” The scholar concluded that “books matter and thinking about the ideas in books matters — especially to incarcerated men and women.”

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.