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Books to Prisoners: Action is Still Needed

Theft of Knowledge on Unfounded Contraband Concern:

The benefits of education in a correctional facility can be an essential tool for a convict to successfully re-assimilate to a life beyond bars. Books to Prisoners is a non-profit organization that since 1973 has provided the service implied by their name- putting pages into prisoners hands. Books to Prisoners cannot solely count on their funding for this mission, and have heavily relied on donations to circulate their libraries.

At the end of March, the Department of Corrections quietly passed a referendum prohibiting the circulation of used donations from B2P. This was created and passed on the concern regarding security from controlled substances entering the many facilities benefiting from this program. The Department of Corrections claimed 17 instances of contraband smuggling that have been investigated and proven untrue in every claim. In the entire existence of book donation programs like Books to Prisoners, there has never been a report of contraband being snuck in through a book.

Books To Prisoners is a “Seattle-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster a love of reading behind bars, encourage the pursuit of knowledge and self-empowerment, and break the cycle of recidivism.” They believe that books are tools for learning and new ideas and possibilities, and engage incarcerated individuals with the benefits of reading by mailing tens of thousands of free books to inmates across the country each year. Prisoners can select from already available books, or request for resources as they so desire.

Before this year, there have been few issues with regulation. B2P is for the most part used books, the majority of donations are used books shipped from out of a basement in Crown Hill United Methodist Church. Starting in March, the DOC began returning donations, and sometimes seemingly random returns became more prevalent just before the memo was released. According to four-year volunteer and acting President of Books to Prisoners, Joan Ross, the organization was not alerted but also not “caught flat footed” per say by the ban on donations.

This 40-plus year old organization did not let this action stay quiet, and has been very active throughout the month of April in attempt to counteract this restrictive action. B2P started their first call to action with a phone zap directed at Washington Prisons Correctional Manager Roy Gonzalez, implemented to demand that this new memo “DOC 450.100” be rescinded at once. This group outcry was heard loud and clear, as Department of Corrections have since quelled their strong stance on the issue.

After a meeting between B2P and the DOC the memo has since been overturned and redacted but this does not stop the demand for help on a grand scale. Joan Ross would say that the phone zap is a small example of action they think will create real change. Ross believes the struggle is “not over, not by a long shot, we still have a strong need for both media support and public support. The memo is entirely unwarranted, and people should be questioning why they put this memo forth in the first place.”

Joan Ross would go on to say that action on a grand scale is necessary for all donation-based programs that could potentially exist to counteract the policies currently in place for prisoners. The organization is committed to finding a “reasonable compromise” that may entail an approved vendors list to aid the lack of free resources within correctional facilities in addition to books and magazines.

Current student at Seattle Central, Rusty O’Brien, is a living example of the importance of educational resources within correctional facilities like Coyote Ridge. O’Brien has been on work release from Coyote Ridge for two months, a Seattle Central student since his fifth day on release, and is a former in-facility teachers aid for calculus with a 3.7 GPA from University Beyond Bars. Having educational resources in the prison became a crucial part of O’Brien’s rehabilitation process, knowing that there was opportunity outside of the facility became a driving force for how he would organize life beyond bars.

According to O’Brien, “Seattle Central is the only organization that has shown hospitality and proven to be a giving and compassionate organization. I didn’t have that elsewhere, anywhere, before this.” O’Brien would continue to express his gratitude for donation programs, stating that “the tools I am learning here have been amazing. The books I received in Coyote Creek from Books to Prisoners became a huge motivation to join this school. I can’t shout it loud enough, I feel better in society than I have ever felt before.”

O’Brien and Ross will agree that the necessity for change is far from over. Both parties discuss the need for more resources in prisons as they are crucial to the deconstruction of oppressive systemic issues within facilities, as well as destigmatizing the issues when prisoners are released back into society. Without action, there will be no motivation for systems to change and aid our community. Ross adds that “regardless of status of vendor list, another important thing is clearly defined terms of what is on the approved vendors list and why. For the last 45 years we have been operating without the list and we are very tired of this process working without check and balance.” Ross believes this check and balance system can potentially serve as a way to regulate the opportunities for resources of all kinds to be donated by the general public without fear of being sent back. The push for regulation may come from compromise, but is elemental in sustaining the model of organizations like Books to Prisoners.

Opportunities to donate and volunteer with Books to Prisoners can be found here, and included below are other organizations that can be contacted to contribute to the change needed to continue supporting issues surrounding social justice for prisoners and educators alike.


Books to Prisoners

Left Bank Books

Prison Talk

Prison Activist

Books Through Bars

Prison Book Program

Prison Pen Pals


Black Prisoners Caucus

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