There is a great book yet to be written — maybe something along the lines of “Orange Is the New Black” meets “Catch 22” — about the state Department of Corrections’ misguided new policy — now, thankfully, rescinded — to no longer accept donated used books from reputable nonprofit organizations for prisoners’ edification.
Chapter 1: It would start off kind of slow, on March 12, with a harried bureaucratic uploading the new policy memo deep on the department’s website. In stilted prose, the memo details that the “Prisons Division is moving away from allowing used publications to enter our correctional facilities … (except) those accepted by the Washington State Library.”
Chapter 2: But soon, the plot will thicken. A worker at the bluntly named Seattle nonprofit Books to Prisoners notices that the used books she keeps sending to prisons are getting rejected for no apparent reason. The clever volunteer, Michelle Dillon, pores over the DOC website, finds the memo and learns that the agency has instituted the ban because it lacks resources in its mailrooms to check the books for “contraband.”
Chapter 3: Books to Prisoners, concerned because the policy limits prisoners only to books accessed through a state library system that’s chronically underfunded and, frankly, lacking a good selection of literature, starts crusading. There’s a Reddit feed that in five days garners 47,000 votes. There’s a change.org petition that, as of Wednesday, has racked up 12,812 signatures. Books to Prisoners’ official Twitter response: “We’re ready to fight it.”
Chapter 4: The policy becomes a media cause celebre. The Stranger, an alt-weekly, first opines. Then a national website, Book Riot, weighs in. Then the Seattle Times picks up the story. DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair digs in, says he will not change the policy. He cites 17 instances in 2018 in which “contraband” was slipped between the pages of books, but he would not elaborate.
Chapter 5: In rides Gov. Jay Inslee, who calls the DOC and, ahem, strongly suggests it work with the nonprofit to supply the books. “Most of these folks (prisoners) are going to become our neighbors and we want to reduce recidivism rates, and education and the like is very, very important,” Inslee tells reporters.
Chapter 6: Cut to the next day. Sinclair, perhaps after some soul-searching or in the wake of Inslee’s call, tells the Seattle Times, “We are going to ensure that we have processes in place that allow people (to get books). They won’t all go through the Washington State Library, as they don’t have the resources.”
Chapter 7: Sinclair, having partially caved, plans a summit meeting this week with Books to Prisoners. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times, examining public records, reports that only three of the 17 cases cited by the DOC involved contraband found in books.
Chapter 8: Wednesday afternoon, the DOC releases a memo acknowledging its flawed thinking and lifting the ban.
How’s that for a storybook ending?
We picture the DOC and BTP linking arms and both coming to realize the inherent worth of literature in the lives of prisoners trying to improve their station and avoid the recidivism that is such a problem in this and other states. They’ll acknowledge that, in the end, the whole brouhaha serves as an object lesson for the DOC to seek alternative solutions to institutional problems. As for Books to Prisoners, the L’Affaire Livre only underscores the valuable service the nonprofit provides, highlighting that its contributions are needed because of state underfunding.
Epilogue: An inmate in an orange jumpsuit plops down on his cot, its coiled springs creaking, and cracks the spine of a book. It is “Crime and Punishment.” He adjusts his bifocals and the blurry words become clear. He reads the passage: “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
Really, it wasn’t exactly a cliffhanger ending, either. After all, Books to Prisoners has emerged victorious before. Other states — including three prisons in New York and the penal system in Pennsylvania — have tried bans similar in intent to Washington’s, but each time the rulings were rescinded.
As for the “contraband” subplot, well, it’s been proven that the cloak-and-dagger fears of drugs or shivs hidden in novels was little more than fiction. Books to Prisoners simply wants to improve prisoners’ minds through literature, not alter them through pharmaceutical means. Only when thoughts, feelings and explorations of the human condition — everything you’d find in a good (or even bad) book — are officially considered “contraband” will Books to Prisoners have some explaining to do. Until then, let their valuable service proceed.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crdier and Sam McManis