Prisoners and Nonprofits Seek Fair Access to Books

It’s no secret that the Harry Potter series has faced a number of challenges over the years. The themes of magic and witchcraft, especially, have been viewed as dangerous by some and “evil” by others. For those of us who have read the series and love it, however, we’ve probably learned a lot about ourselves… maybe even the world as a whole.

But what if you weren’t able to access the Harry Potter series? What if someone decided that you couldn’t access any books if you couldn’t pay for them? That has become a reality for prisoners in Washington state, where the Washington Department of Corrections has banned prisoners from receiving free donations of used books.

A Change.org petition, “Stop Washington from banning free books for prisoners,” hopes to change that. The petition, which was started by Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners, has over 15,000 signatures.

The Washington Department of Corrections claims that the ban was enacted to keep contraband out of prisoners’ hands; however, the Seattle Times reviewed the alleged incidents that led to the ban and found that “[a] dozen of those instances didn’t actually involve books at all.”

Based on the information gathered by the Seattle Times, Books to Prisoners wrote, “This ban, therefore, is completely baseless and MUST be repealed immediately.”

The organization also highlighted the importance of used books (which could be anything “from [W]esterns and science[-]fiction novels to books about starting businesses after release”) for those behind bars.

For the many prisoners and their families who can’t afford to buy new books, free, used books are a lifeline; for prisoners in solitary confinement (around 80,000 at any given time), these book donations may be the only reading material they have. We love prison libraries and their hard-working staff, but they are chronically underfunded, understaffed, and not accessible for all prisoners or open when needed. In Pennsylvania, for example, prisoners are allowed a maximum of 90 minutes per week at the prison library. Additionally, books checked out from prison libraries must be returned and may not be available at any given time due to circulation; by contrast, books mailed from prison book programs belong to prisoners forever as personal property. Four facilities in Washington don’t even have on-site libraries, an indication of the ongoing need for services like prison book programs to fill the gaps.

You can help Books to Prisoners by signing the petition, using the hashtag #PrisonersNeedBooks, and urging the Washington Department of Corrections and Governor Jay Inslee to end the ban. Similar bans were already overturned in Pennsylvania and New York last year, giving organizers hope that this petition will be successful too.