(Jackson Street) Books on 7th is around the corner and on the internet tubes. We strive to be your full-service new and used bookstore, emphasizing good literature, progressive politics, and, of course, books about baseball. Opened in Hoquiam October 1, 2010

Friday, August 31, 2007

Books to Prisoners

On Aug 30, 2007, at 6:57 PM, Tammy Domike wrote:

When I posted the Ethicist earlier this week, I had more thoughts on the whole books to prisoners issue and I'd like to talk about those now. We've always been willing to send books to our customers' relatives serving time ands most of them go through the system fine. We have gotten many packages back from people who think that writing our return address on the package will insure delivery. We have a pile of these in the back room, if someone wants to claim them. We don't know who sent them, and no way to contact them to let them know it didn't work.

We've always cautioned people that it must be a new book, that used books are in danger of being denied, and no, we can't send your used Playboys.

As the prison system grows (and it is the biggest "growth industry" in our economy) the private sector will have even less reason to see that a prisoner gets a book delivered. It was distressing to read this article last week.

We'd like to be involved even more. If you'd like to sponsor a book to a prisoner, drop us a line. We can hook you up.

When Did Used Books Become Contraband?
Thanks to a controversial “approved vendor system,” state prisons are slowing the flow of books behind bars.
By Karla Starr
Used books like this are considered contraband by the state’s Department of Corrections.
Earlier this year, Carla McLean, a librarian and volunteer for the organization Books to Prisoners (the group's function is self-evident), struck up a correspondence with a Buddhist pen pal at the Airway Heights Corrections Center west of Spokane. He was getting books sent to him from both BTP and the Zen Mountain Monastery. Then one day, the packages stopped arriving.

"Why did he not get those books?" she wonders. "It's not because of a three-item limit."

McLean is speaking from Books to Prisoners' headquarters, which occupy a dark, 500-square-foot basement in Seattle's International District. Here, BTP fulfills more than 800 requests per month from prisoners nationwide seeking reading material. The stacks around her reveal an unsurprising truth: Most books the nonprofit receives are donations from individuals looking to empty their homes of used books, which are considered contraband by the Washington State Department of Corrections. So whatever new books BTP manages to get hold of, it sends to prisoners in Washington state prisons.

"Offenders are clever, frankly," says DOC spokesperson Mary Christiansen, explaining the rationale behind such stringent policies. "People can hide things very well, and we always have to balance an offender's ability to get legitimate things with security. The balance for us is that offenders do need to read, but we have addressed that by allowing them to buy books from legitimate vendors, versus people just sending books in to somebody."

While Books to Prisoners had been sending its requested materials to inmates at Airway Heights for years, Andy Chan, who has been volunteering with BTP for more than 10 years, says, "Recently, they just started sending them back with a note: 'Not an approved vendor.'" Similarly, according to McLean, another pen pal at Airway Heights was expecting a package that never arrived. "His grandmother tried to send him books, and they rejected it, saying they didn't come from an approved vendor."

Turns out, grandmothers cannot send books to anyone in a Washington state prison. No one can, unless they're on an "approved vendor list." As of May, Airway Heights joined a growing number of corrections centers in Washington state that only accept books sent by vendors on such lists. (Airway Heights' approved list includes Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, as well as smaller outfits like Lamp Specialties.)
According to the DOC's Christiansen, "There is a line within the property policy stating that there is an approved vendor list, and it's up to each facility to establish each list of who's approved. That's based on safety and security. It kind of makes a difference based on which vendors are allowed to send things in."

"For as long as I can remember, individuals haven't been able to send in books to their loved ones—they've either had to go to a bookstore or come to us," says BTP's Chan. "And some of [the relatives of inmates] are in financial straits and not in the position to go to Barnes & Noble, buy a new book, and pay the rates that Barnes & Noble would charge for shipping. In the more narrow sense, my major concern is a certain trend of only allowing certain specific vendors to send in books to prisons. If these other organizations don't actually send books for free, then indigent prisoners are stuck."

Read the whole article please, I made many snips.

UPDATE Saturday September 1: I've removed the photo. I hope the mighty Village Voice will allow this post to stand.


Anonymous said...

Tammy, thanks for highlighting this problem.

Over the years, I’ve had the occasion to work as appointed counsel in prisoner civil rights cases. They are uniquely depressing cases, yet they also present challenges we just don’t see in ordinary commercial litigation practice. (I recall, for example, spending one particular Christmas Eve at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, interviewing inmates who would be witnesses in an upcoming trial. The whole time, John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” kept going through my head …)

Anyway, I’ve spent mercifully little time in prisons (always as a lawyer, by the way … never as a, uh, “guest,” if ya catch my drift), but I’ve seen enough to know that what goes on behind those high walls is truly amazing. The slow-burn, nit-picking, constant mental torture that goes on in our prisons is something to behold; no abject cruelty mind you … just a bizarre and unseemly combination of deprivation, intimidation, lack of respect, humiliation … like Kafka on acid.

You look down a cell block and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the guys on one side of the bars and the guys on the other … and it’s harder still to tell whom you should have more sympathy for.

It was Christmas in prison
and the food was real good
we had turkey and pistols
carved out of wood …

And so it goes.


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