July 30, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 31

Community & Editorial

By refusing to accept used books, two state prisons block inmates preparing for life on the outside

By Andy Chan / Guest Writer

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Who’s afraid of a few used books? A few years ago it was impossible to send used books into state prisons. In the dim and distant past someone in the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) determined that used books were a security risk: They could be adulterated with drugs or so the reasoning seemed to be.

But what if the organization that wants to send used books to Washington prisoners has a 40-year track record of sending used books without a single episode of book adulteration? And what if that organization already sends thousands of used books to high-security prisoners in states not known for liberal attitudes toward drug policy and their prison populations, states like Texas, Arizona, Alabama and Florida?

Books to Prisoners (BTP) is a local nonprofit that for four decades has been engaged in just such an activity: sending mostly used,  free books to inmates across the U.S. We struggled for years to provide new books for Washington state prisoners, but because our organization depends on donated books, the selection of new books is usually pretty paltry compared to that of used books. Which usually led to the situation where a prisoner requesting books on learning English or mathematics might end up with a shiny new book on some completely different subject because that was all we had.

We couldn’t see why the DOC would want to make it harder to educate and provide alternatives to Washington prisoners, so in 2008 we decided to try a different course: We opened a direct dialogue with then DOC head Eldon Vail. He took a look at the situation, reviewed it with corrections staff and agreed to see what threat used books really posed to the system. He initiated a test phase during which used books were allowed into certain low-security facilities. And probably to almost

no one’s surprise, order was maintained and used books were eagerly read. Institutions being what they are, it took a little while for this to sink in, but in 2011 the DOC manual was revised. A policy on the issue states, “Offenders may receive used books from a non-profit organization as approved by the Superintendent.”

For those of us who had been plugging away at this issue for years this was a tremendous success — with a small caveat. We started contacting every state prison in Washington, notifying them of the rule revision and our intention to send used books to prisoners in their facilities. We understood that this would be a very low priority for prison superintendents, so we were patient. And we needed to be. Almost every larger prison required individual attention to persuade them of either the value of more used reading materials in their prisons or that we could be trusted in providing them.

This brings us to the small caveat. As of this summer BTP still can’t get used books into every state prison. Two out of 12 facilities have yet to OK used books. One superintendent initially nixed the idea but is negotiating with us, and one won’t respond to our multiple efforts to contact him. So what’s up with the superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary, officially called the Walla Walla State Prison, which has almost 2,000 offenders in a minimum, medium and close security facility? Maybe he listens only to the prison’s mailroom sergeant, who expressed to me on the phone the tired argument that used books from BTP are a major potential security risk while citing no evidence for this. Maybe he doesn’t believe his prisoners are capable of learning. Maybe he believes that prisoners shouldn’t have access to educational materials, that they are there for punishment alone and it’s not his responsibility to encourage prisoners who are trying to prepare themselves for change when they are released.

We think the only prison superintendent in Washington state who won’t talk about used books should consider a dialogue with us.  We can help him get over his fear of books.

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