by Alex Garland
After weeks of protests, the Washington Department of Corrections lifted a ban on used books that had been quietly implemented in mid-March. The ban blocked nonprofits who sent books to prisoners. The policy reversal followed an onslaught of news coverage, including a report from the Seattle Times that found that the DOC’s claims that the books were used to transport contraband were untrue.
While many saw this as a win brought about by media and public pressure, others say it is no more than a return to the problematic policies already in place.
“I’m not happy that the media has preemptively declared victory when there is so much work to be done,” said Michelle Dillon, a volunteer and board member with Books to Prisoners Seattle.
Dillon said an April 10 memo from the Department of Corrections walking back the book ban has problems already. There at least a dozen organizations that collect and donate used books to prisons, but the memo allows only four groups to provide books to the libraries. Even the list was inaccurate, listing names of organizations that appear to be mashups of two separate groups. Another, Books Through Bars, has branches in multiple cities.
The memo largely takes the state back to where things were before the DOC universally banned books, Dillon said. She questioned whether the previous policies were good enough.
“We want to push forward beyond that to restore access, not just from Books to Prisoners Seattle, but to all the groups, and to ensure the DOC can’t just sneak out another policy like this in the future,” she said.
It’s not just the Washington Department of Corrections that dictates such policies without public knowledge or approval; superintendents of individual prisons are allowed to pick which groups can access a facility — “And they can basically choose that on a whim” Dillon said.
“It shows that a lot of the systems feel empowered to make policies without appropriate public input and we spend our time and energy trying to debunk these claims and walk back those policies when they never should have taken that access away” she said. “It would be great if we had some oversight to the policy making.”
The DOC quietly made the ban without public notification, but also failed to communicate the decision even to other state departments. An April 3 Department of Corrections memo written by Stephen Sinclair, secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, states “At this time, all donated books will continue to channel through the available resource of the State Library for screening.”
The statement didn’t take into account all the additional work that would then be required through the WA library system, demanding more intake from librarians and ignoring the non-profits already doing the work.
The Secretary of State oversees the Washington State Library, which oversees Department of Corrections libraries. The DOC did not inform the state library about the new policy, even though the state library would have been responsible for intaking the thousands of books necessary to fill the gap left by the ban.
“The library had no idea,” Dillon said.
Representatives from Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office say, “The Department of Corrections did not consult with the Office of Secretary of State about the book policy change.”
Washington governor Jay Inslee said he was initially surprised to learn about the changes to the used book policy.
“Most of these folks are going to become our neighbors and we want to reduce recidivism rates, and education and the like is very, very important,” Inslee said to a group of reporters April 3. “I’m going to make sure DOC endeavors to find some solution to this problem.”
Dillon thinks the public has a responsibility to keep this issue in the minds of our elected leaders.
“We need the public to keep the pressure up,” Dillon said. “We’re not just fighting for Books to Prisoners Seattle, or the other ones that decided they might be OK to let through. We’re fighting for all the ones that aren’t on that list.”
Dillon said the state needs policies that don’t unintentionally leave out smaller groups doing work supporting prisoners. Regardless of the policies of past and future, access to education and literacy opportunities are tools that will help reduce recidivism and help prisoners adjust to life outside bars more smoothly.
This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Michelle Dillon’s name. The Emerald regrets the error.
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Featured Image: Courtesy Photo.