OLYMPIA — State corrections officials’ quietly implemented ban on prisoners receiving used books through the mail did not stay quiet for long.
The state Department of Corrections (DOC), which posted the new policy online last month, says the ban is necessary to reduce contraband flowing into the prisons.
It drew little notice until a Seattle nonprofit that has been sending used books to prisoners since the 1970s discovered it last week.
The aptly named Books To Prisoners fields requests from offenders, according to board member and volunteer Michelle Dillon. Volunteers try to find and send appropriate books to the prisoners.
Dillon said the organization has been getting more books rejected by the state’s prisons lately, but she didn’t know why.
After work Friday, Dillon said she went poking around on DOC’s website — and found the memo. The agency lacks the resources to review books in its mailrooms, according to the memo, which cited an increase in contraband.
Now, books must largely come through the state library system, which stocks the prison libraries.
“Given the chronic underfunding, it’s a huge problem if prisoners are only going to have access to books through their libraries,” Dillon said.
Books to Prisoners this week filed a change.org petition to stop the policy. By Thursday morning, it had notched more than 6,200 signatures. A Reddit feed about the policy decision had racked up 47,000 votes.
Several news organizations wrote about the controversy, including The Stranger, which first reported it.
Since then, DOC’s new policy has also drawn the attention of lawmakers who oversee prison issues — and Gov. Jay Inslee.
Inslee on Wednesday said he recently learned about the ban and called DOC to tell them to work with the nonprofits on supplying books to prisoners.
“They will be working with stakeholders to find a way for books to be safely received,” said Inslee, who took questions from reporters Wednesday afternoon after a bill-signing ceremony.
“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 later. “I’m going to make sure DOC endeavors to find some solution to this problem.”
In a statement, DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair said he would work with nonprofit groups, but not roll back the policy.
“I am a big supporter of reading and facilitating access to a wide-range of books and reading materials,” said Sinclair in prepared remarks. But, “At this time, all donated books will continue to channel through the available resource of the State Library for screening.”
DOC will meet with the nonprofit groups “to best guarantee that security of institutions can be met and that books can continue to most effectively reach incarcerated individuals for their educational opportunities and idle time relief,” he added.
The agency has seen a rise in contraband coming via books over the past five years, according to the statement.
That includes 17 instances last year, though the agency didn’t elaborate Wednesday on what types of contraband had been found in those cases.
The policy leaves offenders relying on the Washington State Library’s Institutional Library Services program, which supplies books to prison libraries.
Erich Ebel, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees that program, said DOC didn’t inform them of the change. Their office doesn’t have new proposed funding or a plan to fill the void for the used books that prisoners will no longer receive, he wrote in an email.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said she has asked DOC for information about why the policy is necessary and why the agency didn’t share its plans.
“Is this a solution looking for a problem that they’ve just heard of in another state?” said Darneille, chair of Senate Human Services, Re-entry & Rehabilitation Committee. “But it clearly is going to undermine our efforts for greater access to educational resources” in the prisons.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said he was also asking the agency for information.
“I’m going to ask some questions and see if there’s a way we can find some middle ground to allow prisoners to have access to enriching reading material,” he said. “Without worsening the contraband problem.”
DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the agency doesn’t usually brief lawmakers on operational memorandums like this one.