How you can help fight for the right to read in Washington state prisons

Over the weekend, the good people at Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit that delivers used books to incarcerated individuals, noticed that the Washington State Department of Corrections quietly made a change to their book policy. According to the new DoC rules, the state would only allow select organizations to donate new books to prisoners.

The problem is that nonprofits like Books to Prisoners provide quality used books to prisoners in much greater quantities than any organization supplying new books could match. Over the phone, Books to Prisoners' secretary Andy Chan tells me that the dictionary is always in high demand, as well as books on vocational training, GED preparation, and genre fiction. Without your donated used books, countless incarcerated people will have to go without any books at all.

Last year, Departments of Corrections in New York state and Pennsylvania both tried to pass similar used book bans, but Chan says "none of them have stuck." Outrage from ordinary citizens forced the states to reverse their decisions. Since the Washington DoC's used book ban was discovered, Books to Prisoners organized a "phone zap," in which people called DoC Prisons Division Correctional Manager Roy Gonzalez to demand that he reverse the policy. (Full disclosure: I called Gonzalez and left a message during the political action.) Those calls successfully overloaded the phone system and broke Gonzalez's voice mailbox. And they've gathered more than one thousand signatures on a petition demanding the reversal of the policy. (Full disclosure: I signed the petition.)

The DoC hasn't responded to the protest aside from what Chan characterizes as a "boilerplate" statement claiming that "prisoners in eight out of 12 Washington state prisons have access to a full library." That doesn't explain the change in policy, and, as Chan notes, it doesn't recognize the fact that Books to Prisoners gets plenty of requests for books from those prisons with supposedly full libraries. Clearly, the system isn't getting enough books into the hands of people who need them.

Why would Washington's DoC try this ban when it flamed out so spectacularly in two other states last year? "I'm guessing, because they haven't told us specifically," Chan qualifies, but he suspects that it's what he characterizes as a "mass hysteria" based on the theory that "perhaps used books from nonprofits is one of the routes" for drugs to enter prisons. Chan specifies that nobody has ever presented any proof that "a nonprofit such as Books to Prisoners has ever sent in any kind of contraband," but the organizations are still wrongly identified as a weak spot in the prison's defenses.

Still, Chan wants to be clear that this is all conjecture: "we don't know [the reason for the DoC's ban] because they have not responded, as yet, to our attempts to contact them," he says.

(Side note: Whenever I write about organizations like Books to Prisoners, some jackass will always respond on Twitter with a smug one-line response like "they should've read a book before they went into prison." Respectfully, to whoever is about to respond to this piece with that line: fuck off. Books are how we teach ourselves to be better people. Books help us get into the minds and hearts and experiences of other people. Books foster empathy and they help us aspire to being a little better tomorrow than we are today. There is no crime so horrendous that I would deny someone a book as punishment, and if you believe that the American prison system should be rehabilitative and not simply a place where we stick people until they die of old age, you should feel the same way.)

So what should people do now? Chan wants people to follow Books to Prisoners on Twitter and Facebook to stay up-to-date on actions. And he says, "we're going to start contacting Governor Jay Inslee, who is a professed believer in the need to decrease the recidivism rate of Washington state prisoners."

Inslee is currently running for president, Chan notes, "and his very own Department of Corrections is doing something which is, completely contradicting his idea." Obviously, a used book ban isn't going to help with recidivism rates.

"I don't know to what extent they informed [Inslee] that they were going to do this, and the reasoning for why they were going to do this, but he needs to be able to explain to us, if his Department of Corrections is not going to, why it makes sense to have done this," Chan says.

Books to Prisoners is off to a great start with this campaign — they went from discovering the policy to jamming DoC's phone lines in less than 24 hours. But they can't do it without your help. Follow Books to Prisoners on social media and help them out with actions when you can. Any policy that discourages reading in our prisons is a policy that harms us all.