From talking to people who have done time in other states, I have come to understand that there is a list of things that make Washington prisons unique. One of them is the presence of the Washington Library System in every WA DOC prison. Due to the very nature of these two vastly different government agencies, there is a lot of tension between them.
The Washington Library System is (in my oh so humble opinion) a bastion of goodness and light. Public libraries are one of the few places where one can get a world class education without paying a single bent copper for it. Where else are you guaranteed to be exposed to new ideas without having those ideas imposed on you? Not even the most liberal of universities can claim that, but libraries can.
When I lived in town in Spokane, one of the few places I truly felt comfortable and safe was at the north branch of the Spokane Public Library. It was a mile and a little bit from my house in Fairwood Park. I would walk my bike up the hill in the Whitworth back 40, which was a power levy, then bike slowly across the Whitworth campus to a stoplight where I had to cross both Highway 395 and the major thoroughfare that intersected it to get to the library. I would then settle in and read for hours. I didn’t have a library card; I just showed up, read, and made sure to reshelve my books properly. I spent one summer reading microfilms of old newspapers and still consider that to be the best history education I’ve every received. If not for the library, I’m fairly sure I would have lost my fight with depression in middle school, so as far as I’m concerned libraries are sacred space. I may be a little biased in my opinion, but in this case I’m okay with that.
On the other side of all this is the Washington Department of Corrections. I’m comfortable just saying they’re fascists and moving on. Not something I feel the need to convince people of and I’m pretty sure I’m being generous with that assessment.
Suffice to say, there’s a little tension between the two. Technically, the library is not a part of the Department of Corrections in any way shape or form. It is under the secretary of state. Some Washington Library branches just happen to be located in the middle of a prison.
I worked in the library as a clerk in Walla Walla for about a year. One of the odder experiences I had was when a c/o came in and asked if he could get a library card for our branch so he could check out a couple People magazines and a newspaper to read. I directed him to my boss, our branch librarian, and let her sort it out.
There is an uneasy truce (more like a tentative ceasefire) between the librarians who happen to work in prisons, and prison administrators.
On the most fundamental level, prison administration likes censorship, whereas freedom of information is at the core of the library system’s mission. At that boundary between the two is a palpable current of conflict, even while both sides are going through the motions of civility.
I’ve watched that boundary pushed to the breaking point and beyond. I fearfully witnessed c/o’s demand books on classical art banned because the paintings pictured in them “violate the mail policy against nudity.” And I watched with trepidation as “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” was added to the reference section after librarians statewide had many long arguments with the DOC to let it in.
So at this time of year, when people generally turn their thoughts to what they are grateful for, I find myself extremely grateful to the librarians of the Washington Library System.
So this goes out to librarians everywhere: