"Access to information is not an easy thing to come by in prisons"

Michelle Dillon took a circuitous path to her time as a volunteer and board member with Books to Prisoners Seattle. She studied forensic psychology and evolutionary anthropology before settling on the Master of Library and Information Science Program at the University of Washington. From there, she saw a call for volunteers from Books to Prisoners in the UW Daily.

I thought for sure that I was going to be a public librarian because I thought that that was the population that had the most intense information needs," Dillon says, "and I was completely proven wrong by Books to Prisoners."

Dillon now works full-time at the Human Rights Defense Center, where she fights against censorship in prisons. But the last month or so has been a hectic one for her volunteer gig at Books to Prisoners — particularly since she runs the social media accounts for the nonprofit.

I reached Dillon by phone earlier this week to explain what's happened with the Washington state Department of Corrections' ban on used books, what the status is of the book ban right now, and what you can do to help Books to Prisoners.

How, exactly, did you come to realize that something was wrong?

So Books to Prisoners Seattle started to notice an increasing number of rejections of books from Washington prisons in 2018, and we didn't really have a good explanation why. The [Department of Corrections] wasn't talking to us. So after finally getting sick of it, I starting delving around on the DOC's website in March and finally came across a memo that they had put out that was dated March 12th. It stated that they would no longer be accepting free, used books from nonprofits such as Books to Prisoners.

We've been sending books into Washington prisons since 1973 and we've never had an incident. We sent thousands of books during that time. So we were just blindsided by this, and we pushed back. We started a phone zap [social media call-in campaign] which then ended up becoming a much bigger deal much sooner than I had ever anticipated.

We ended up getting some national coverage from media outlets and a lot of publicity from a lot of authors on Twitter who helped keep this in the public eye. After enough people started getting in the face of the DOC and shutting down their phones and their email inboxes and whatnot, [the public] also turned to Governor Jay Inslee who, the very next week made a public statement saying the DOC really needs to work with Books to Prisoners to resolve this.

Instead of immediately doing that, the DOC tried to double down by releasing a press release that stated there were increasing numbers of contraband incidents, including 17 in 2018 alone, of contraband entering through mailed books. We knew that was bullshit. It's the same line that's been used every single time that a DOC tries to stop the flow of books coming into prisons. It's always about safety and security, always about contraband.

"The Seattle Times got a hold of that list of alleged contraband incidents and, lo and behold, not one of them were tied to the mailed books that groups like Books to Prisoners were providing through the mail."

The Seattle Times got a hold of that list of alleged contraband incidents and, lo and behold, not one of them were tied to the mailed books that groups like Books to Prisoners were providing through the mail. And in fact most of them didn't even involve books at all. A lot of them were just things that came out of this terrible, terrible keyword search for their incident reports for "book+contraband" where they found incidents like, "contraband was found by Officer Booker," or "inmate was booked with contraband."

Finally the DOC agreed to meet with us last Friday, after putting out a partial repeal memo on April 10 that, unfortunately, only included four groups which would be allowed, one of which wasn't even the correct name of a known group. Clearly they hadn't really done their research on this.

So a couple of representatives and some people from the ACLU and some prisoner's advocates met with the DOC on Friday and we are currently in the process of negotiating a bigger, better memo that will hopefully not just rescind the state of access to where it was shortly before they released this universal ban.

Honestly, even that state was not that great, because each prison was allowed how to decide how they wanted to handle mailed books and a lot of facilities were only allowing new books. Even when we would mail in the new books, they were still claiming that they were used books because of bent corners that had been damaged in shipping and all of these other loopholes that basically cut off access anyway.

So we're trying to use the momentum from this terrible botched new policy that they attempted to implement to fight for better, more open, more just, more equitable access for all community groups that want to help prisoners in Washington.

So even though some outlets have reported that the situation has been resolved, the situation is not yet resolved. What do you think the DOC's motivation is in all this? Isn't a reading prison population better than a non-reading population?

We obviously don't know what's going on with the Washington DOC. but I will say that in Pennsylvania they found that their DOC had in fact negotiated a new contract with their tablet provider just months before attempting to institute the book ban, which had changed the commissions that were coming back to the Pennsylvania DOC. It went from a flat commission to incentivized revenue. So if the DOC didn't push enough books through their tablets, they would start losing money.

Given what happened in Pennsylvania, it's not out of the realm of possibility that something similar might be happening in Washington. And what we do know is that right now the Washington DOC has a request for proposals for tablets out. A lot of advocates have been trying to get their hands onto that request for proposal and see what the DOC is attempting to get from any new contract that they might sign. But so far they have been stonewalled.

"…public scrutiny and public shaming has been one of the most effective routes to keeping Departments of Corrections in line."

Okay. All right. That's clarifying. Is there anything that people can do to help you through this process of trying to completely lift the ban on used books in prisons?

What people can do is still pay attention to this issue. Because what we know is that, unfortunately, public scrutiny and public shaming has been one of the most effective routes to keeping Departments of Corrections in line. Without that public eye, they tend to stop returning phone calls, and they tend to stop abiding by these policies and regulations that were set out to keep them in check.

So keep an eye on our Twitter account, which has so far been the most effective way of wrangling people. We will put updates there. If we should need to call upon people to start doing phone zaps again or to start getting higher levels of government involved again, we will need to have a group of people who are committed to acting fast.

I mean, I was blown away by the fact that we got the DOC to agree to a meeting with us in two weeks. That's how committed people have been. And unfortunately, although they would like us to believe that everything has been resolved, we don't have a firm new policy that's going to serve everyone. And now is when we need people to be able to get mobilized quickly.

And in general, now that people are aware of what it is that you do, what can people do to help Books to Prisoners?

We always need volunteers. And we're not the only group who does this, so if there are people who are reading who are not in the Washington area, there are groups all around the country that have a similar mission.

And in fact there are other groups in Washington who are under the Books to Prisoners umbrella. There is Books to Prisoners Spokane, there's Portland Books to Prisoners, which also gets in the Vancouver crowd. We always need volunteers to help read letters and package up books.

We also need financial donations. That cannot be emphasized enough, because we are basically able to send out exactly as many packages during the year as we have money to respond to. We always have more letters than we're able to answer.

We run on shoestring budgets. Here in Seattle we run off an annual budget of about $60,000, and that allows us to send out about 12,000 packages of books every year. Each package of books costs three to four dollars to send, and the rest of the money goes towards rent — which in Seattle is unfortunately not cheap. We need to have an on-site library of books to be able to do our jobs and we need to provide support for our one poor staff member who is contracted at 12 hours a week to help respond to donation requests and oversee all of the volunteer shifts to make sure that we get all of the books packaged up according to prison specs.

People love to give us books — and don't get me wrong, we love to get them. But the problem is our storage capacity. Again, rent is very expensive in Seattle, so we have to prioritize those books which are of utmost importance to us. I guess if people want to donate books, the one thing that we need right now is dictionaries. Always and forever, paperback dictionaries. About 25 percent of all request letters have a request for a dictionary in them.

Most people would never guess that the dictionary, of all things, would be the most requested book in prisons.

It's this humble book that most of us don't even have on our bookshelves anymore because we have the internet, we have libraries, we have bookstores. We just take access to information for granted, and that is not an easy thing to come by in prisons. This is something that I hear all the time from prison librarian friends: no matter how many dictionaries they try to stock, you're never going to as a prisoner be able to walk into the library and find one on the shelf. They are always in circulation.

As you're coming off of this great wave of support, is there anything that you think people should know?

That they should keep their eyes out for other Departments of Corrections who are attempting the same thing. We were able to get a lot of support because Seattleites think of themselves as being a very literary city, and Washington in general thinks of itself as being a very literary state. But this seems to be an unfortunate, let's call it a trend, when it comes to banned books. Other states may not have the kind of coverage and support to be able to respond as quickly to some of these bans, as we saw in Washington specifically. So keep an eye out for other bans in other states because — I hate to say it, but they're coming.