Getting Books in Prison

6/20/19

Earlier this year, in April, the DOC put out a memo saying that they were going to block all donations of used books to the prison. When I first saw it I was a bit surprised because I had, over the years, received many mail rejections because some charity group or another had sent me a used book and no amount of appealing those decisions had ever resulted in me getting the rejection overturned. Thus my initial reaction. I had long sense filed this as one of those things that the rules technically said it was allowed, but was enforced in a way that was the same as a ban would be.

Upon learning more about the ban it turned out that the ban would include any donations to the library, chapel and volunteer programs who have, historically, been able to bring used books into the prison in support of their program.

Thankful, the status quo of the library, chapel, and volunteers being able to bring in used books was restored by Gov. Inslee who told the WA DOC to find a way to work with charities to give prisoners access to used books.

I had learned all of these things as they developed at the time and it is only now, at the end of June, that I have (finally) gotten to read news articles about the ban from the Seattle Times and the Stranger.

Graham, Nathalie. (2019) The Stranger. “Washington Prisoners May No Longer Be Able to Receive Donated Books”. April 1, 2019.

O’Sullivan, Joseph. (2019). Seattle Times. Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the mail. April 10, 2019

After reading these articles I was again, a bit confused. Both articles refer to “Books to Prisoners” in Seattle. If this is the “Books to Prisoners” based out of “Left Bank Books” then this would be one of the charities I mentioned earlier. I once tried to get books from them when I was in Walla Walla, but they got rejected by the mailroom for being used. At the time I was thankful to them for trying to send me books, and upset with the mailroom for wasting their money.

Furthermore, and particularly in regards to the Seattle Times article, the impression is given that people in prison get books just from charities and the library. It does not mention that incarcerated people can order books from mail order catalogs or that we can have our friends or family order books for us directly from a bookstore or publisher. There are, however, a few rules around incarcerated people in Washington getting books.

1. Any books ordered from a bookstore or publisher must be new. Incarcerated people cannot buy used books, nor can our friends or family members buy them for us.
2. For an incarcerated person to receive used books, they have to come from a charity and the mailroom has to recognize the organization as a charity. Otherwise those books will be rejected.
3. All books must pass through the screening process in the mailroom which comes with its own set of arbitrary standards and biases which vary based upon who happens to be working that day.

This means that if I need a textbook to continue my studies in a given subject, like art history, I have to hope that a charity has one in stock and will send it to me or I have to buy it new. I cannot have one of my penpals go into a college bookstore or look it up on Amazon and buy one for me used. There is no middle ground. Furthermore, if I do happen to get it sent to me by whatever means, I have to hope that the person doing the mailroom screening won’t reject it as being “pornography” because of the nudity common to paintings and drawings reproduced in art history books. This creates multiple barriers to someone in prison getting books on topics they are trying to study.

Yes, Book to Prisoners programs do good work, but they can only provide the books they are given, and most people choose to sell their used college textbooks rather than donate them to charity because they are so expensive. So if an incarcerated person wants a textbook on calculus, sociology, anthropology, physical science, computer science, philosophy, history, or really any other topic which there is a large divide between the cost of books written for general audiences, and books written for scholars and academics, how exactly are incarcerated people supposed to afford or luck into a copy of the books we need to sustain our studies? This argument doesn’t even touch on access to out of print books.

Allowing charities to send incarcerated people books is a nice idea, but it’s not even close to enough. By having a different standard for charities and everyone else, mail rooms are able to reject used books from a charity by not recognizing their charity status. Therefore to not stomp on our First Amendment right to freedom of the press they have to allow us to receive used books from any reputable source, meaning bookstores and overstock warehouses in addition to charities.

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