Facing mounting public criticism over a ban on sending free books to prison inmates, the Washington Department of Corrections backed down, partially rescinding the ban and now allowing a select group of nonprofits to send books. However, Books to Prisoners Seattle, a nonprofit advocacy group for inmates, called the adjusted policy “insufficient,” and met with department officials to clarify its details.
Representatives of BTP Seattle met with WDOC officials on Friday to challenge and clarify the new book policy. The newly adjusted policy would allow books to be sent only from four nonprofit vendors: Books to Prisoners Seattle, Books Through Bars, Women’s Prison Book Project, and Prisoners Literature Project. Representatives of Books to Prisoners Seattle said they were “optimistic” after their initial meeting with WDOC officials, but a BTP Seattle spokesperson told PW negotiations on the details and unanswered questions about the newly adjusted book policy will continue.
“We're still working with the Washington DOC to clarify the terms of new acceptance policies but are optimistic for resolution and improved lines of communication in the future,” Michelle Dillon, a volunteer and board member of BTP Seattle, told PW. Dillon emphasized that “we still have many concerns [about the new policy]. We are working not just for access via Books to Prisoners Seattle, but for access via all community groups which share our mission of providing free, used books to prisoners in Washington.”
After meeting with WDOC, BTP Seattle said the new policy contains “details in need of address.” BTP Seattle complained that the adjusted policy restricts “approved book providers to a narrow and inaccurate list, [that] contained ambiguities about approval and rejection processes now and in the future, and [the adjusted policy] did not contain a full accounting of how communication between the Washington DOC and prison book programs would be improved to preempt such bans in the future.”
Dillon said BTP Seattle's goal is to “negotiate a policy which doesn’t just restore the limited access” prior to the universal ban, but a policy that offers “a much more just, comprehensive, consistent policy that ensures that all [nonprofit prison support] groups are treated equally.” She noted that the new policy offers a "very short list of approved vendors, which would exclude at least a dozen known organizations, which have sent books to Washington prisoners in the past." She noted that several approved vendors on the new list, Including BTP Seattle and New York’s Books Through Bars, operate in other cities under the same acronym and she explained that the WDOC vendor list is unclear about what programs are eligible.
In addition, Dillon said a recent article in the Seattle Times that claimed the WDOC book ban has been reversed is “premature." She emphasized that "we're still working with the Washington DOC to clarify the terms of new acceptance policies, but are optimistic for resolution and improved lines of communication in the future.”
Washington’s restriction on prison book donations is the latest attempt to prohibit prison inmates from receiving free books from support groups or from individuals. Similar attempts to ban sending books to prisoners in New York and New Jersey were revoked after the resulting public outcry.
The situation in Seattle began in March, Dillon said, when the WDOC issued a memo that “quietly changed its policies to stop prisoners from accessing thousands of free, used books. These book donations, which have been supplied by humanitarian organizations across the country since 1973, are lifelines for many of these prisoners, who face underfunded (or nonexistent) prison libraries.”
BTP Seattle denounced the initial March ban as "cruel and senseless," and by April the Washington DOC had issued a new memo with the newly adjusted policy on books. In response to the initial WDOC ban, BTP Seattle launched an online petition to protest the DOC action, which demands that the ban be rescinded and now has more than 15,000 collected signatures. The ban was also criticized by Washington governor Jay Inslee and a number of state legislators.
In addition, following the initial ban, a subsequent report in the Seattle Times cast doubt on the Washington DOC’s claims that illegal contraband sent to prisons was escalating “at a high rate.” After examining DOC claims that prison contraband was being smuggled via books, the Seattle Times reported that most of the instances cited by the DOC either didn’t involve books at all or, in the remaining instances, it was unclear whether the contraband cited was actually smuggled using books.
In response to the initial ban, Dillon told PW: “These prisoners will lose irreplaceable links to tools for literacy, education, self-empowerment, and the wide world beyond the prison walls. Prisoners and their families cannot afford to buy the thousands of brand new books which will be necessary to replace the free books which are now banned.”
Correction: BTP Seattle is the correct abbreviation of the organization's name. It was incorrectly abbreviated in an earlier version of this article.