An Interview with Books to Prisoners
February 3, 2020
Each month, the Seattle-based nonprofit Books To Prisoners receives upwards of 1,000 requests for used book titles from inmates all across the country. And, every year, tens of thousands of free books leave their volunteer location in Greenwood to head to readers in U.S. prisons. Beyond this vital service, the organization has also fought to keep the supply of used books available to prisoners in Washington state by mobilizing the community.
For these reasons, Books to Prisoners is the recipient of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ 2020 Prowda Literary Champion Award, alongside the outgoing Executive Director of Hedgebrook, Amy Wheeler, for their role in making the Puget Sound an outstanding place for readers and writers.
Founded in the 1970s, sponsored by Left Bank Books, and volunteer-led, their mission is to “foster a love of reading behind bars, encourage the pursuit of knowledge and self-empowerment, and break the cycle of recidivism.” To celebrate their award, we spoke with Andy Chan, who has been volunteering with Books to Prisoners since 1994 and who has served several terms as BTP President, to learn more about their work and readers in the American prison system—plus, how you can help support them!
What’s one thing that surprises people about your work and the demand for books in the American prison system?
Something that surprises many people is that our number one request is a dictionary. I think this, more than almost anything, indicates the opportunity that many prisoners want to take to increase their literacy and understanding. I think we’d also like people to know that prisoners have as wide a range of reading interests as any group of folk so we’ll get requests for sci-fi, horror, classics, books on European or African history, philosophy and astronomy, car mechanics and basketball… everything.
People ask how we know we make an impact. We readily acknowledge that we can only serve a drop in the bucket of need for reading materials in prison. But beyond statistics, there is the qualitative, human factor to consider. Whether we help make a significant difference to 10,000 people in a year, or 20, or just one person, maybe that’s enough. There was an article in the Guardian a couple of years ago, entitled “The Book that Changed My Life in Prison.” One of the contributors was Paul Wright, now the head of the Human Rights Defense Center. He wrote that the book that changed his life was sent to him in prison by Books to Prisoners.
Can you tell us a little more about the ban on sending free books to prison inmates that the Washington Department of Corrections has tried to put into place?
Although we live in a liberal state, and the WA Department of Corrections is far from the most regressive penal system in the U.S., we’ve had our struggles with them over the years. Up until 2008, WA DoC did not allow used books into Washington prisons. We started a conversation with them that ultimately resulted in them rescinding this restriction in 2011.
Late in 2017, we started to have more of our books get rejected from a handful of WA prisons, but in a fairly random sort of pattern. And then in March of 2019, we received a deluge of rejections. We did a bit of sleuthing and uncovered—deep in the DoC website—a memo banning all used books from nonprofits. We immediately leapt into action, attempting to contact the DoC, putting out a press release, organizing a phone and email zap of the DoC, and reaching out to our political representatives, including Governor Jay Inslee.
The DoC first ignored us, then hit back with a reasonable-sounding defense of the policy that it was a necessary step to counter contraband in prisons, and that there were 17 instances of books being involved in drug smuggling into WA prisons since 2018. We were surprised and gratified by the pressure that literacy-loving citizens applied to the DoC, such that they agreed to meet with us for face-to-face talks less than a week after we started our campaign.
The final collapse of the used book ban occurred when the Seattle Times received a response to their FOIA request regarding the 17 instances of the book/drug nexus. It turned out that none of them were related to books being mailed in by a nonprofit and some had absolutely nothing to do with books at all (one was a drug report by an Officer Booker). The DoC had no real option but to walk the ban back.
Where it stands now is that the DoC is allowing verifiable nonprofits, including Books to Prisoners, to send in used books. DoC Secretary Steve Sinclair has established a formal channel of communications with us, and we are (at the time of this interview) negotiating the liberalization of the criteria of what will get a used book rejected—e.g. underlining or a torn page.
Many people are accustomed to thinking about prisons as places that are completely removed from their city and their day-to-day lives. How does paying attention to books in prisons help enrich communities in the Seattle area?
Many of our best volunteers are well-read adults who can easily find the perfect alternative read for someone who is looking for a book or author we don’t have on the shelves. But we love the summer school break when—for many years now—we’ve had kids from City of Mercer Island’s VOICE program come in to volunteer.
These are mostly privileged kids who, more than likely, will have no touch-points with the U.S. criminal justice system in their lives, but here they are exposed to America’s underclass, to race and social inequity at its apex. It’s educational for us to see these kids marvel at the length of a prison sentence, to be surprised at what someone requests, or be moved by the heartfelt requests they are reading. It very much brings home the idea that whatever the prisoner has done (and sometimes not done!) to get in prison, they are not one-dimensional; they are more than the crime which they have been convicted of.
I don’t think I probably have to explain the value of reading and education to anyone reading this. But when I talk to more skeptical folk, who truly believe that people in prison deserve the nth degree of punishment they get, I say to them—when these folk get out of prison, do you want them to have been given the opportunity to educate themselves, broaden their horizons, be more qualified to function in society, or do you want them to have the tools that may have gotten them into prison? There are very few places on the political spectrum where it’s a bad idea to help people to read.
For people looking to clear out their shelves, what are the most in-demand books or genres to donate to Books to Prisoners?
Many places don’t accept hardbacks, so we mostly prefer only to get paperbacks. Dictionaries are always needed, horror, urban fiction, black studies, how-to-draw, trades like carpentry, plumbing, HVAC. The best thing to do is visit our website, www.bookstoprisoners.net/send-books, for current needs as it’s more of a hindrance than a help to have to find a place to store thousands of books in a genre that is not very popular.
How can people get more involved with Books to Prisoners?
We have volunteer sessions at our space in Greenwood Tuesday – Thursday, in the evening, Wednesday morning, and Saturday afternoon. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. We also really need financial donations to keep the project going. We’re a volunteer-driven organization, so by far our largest expense is postage, but our rent has almost tripled over the last three years.
Thank you, Andy! SAL will be publicly celebrating Books to Prisoners and Amy Wheeler at Carol Anderson’s Literary Arts Series event on April 15 with a special video.
The featured image is courtesy of Books to Prisoners’ blog.