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News > U.S.

US: Understaffed Prison Mailrooms Cause Ban on Book Donations

  • Prisoners at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary library at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison.

    Prisoners at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary library at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 April 2019

The nonprofit points out that their objective is a direct response to underfunded prison libraries with limited staff.

The Washington State Department of Corrections discretely implemented a new policy effective since March 25, which bans nonprofit organizations from donating books to prisons.


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The policy took donors by surprise, including the Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners, which tweeted that "they didn't bother to tell us first. We only know now because we found this memo on their website today. We're ready to fight it."

The organization's post claims the memo only came to their attention four days after the policy was already in effect.

Since individuals are not legally allowed to directly donate books to prisons, nonprofit organizations accept the donations and distribute the books to prisoners through an indirect channel. The new policy limits prisoners access to literature that has been accepted by the Washington State Libary for incarcerated individuals, used books from the Monroe City Library and books related to educational courses they are enrolled in.

The books from the Monroe City Library only reach facilities in Snohomish County. Books for Prisoners says that the policy is "severely limiting" the prisoners' access to literature, especially those who are incarcerated in facilities outside of Monroe County.

The Department claimed that it would allocate extra funds for the Washington state library. The library told Books to Prisoners that it was also not given any advanced notice of the policy provision and has not received any additional funding or support to compensate for the increased responsibility of providing prisoners with books.

While the Department claims the policy is necessary to ensure safety, the problem is a direct result of understaffed prison mailrooms with fewer workers available to examine the donated books for contraband. The system deficiency directly affects individuals' ability to improve themselves and their literacy skills.

"The reason that we send books directly to the hands of prisoners is that libraries are chronically underfunded and understaffed. In Washington, each branch has just 1 librarian," the NGO explained.

Books to Prisoners boast a clean record of "45 years [in which] our books have never had contraband," the nonprofit noted regarding conducting inspections of the donated books.

“Given that we’ve sent books without issue since 1973, and currently send to 12,000 unique prisoners across almost every state in the country each year, it would be bewildering if after 46 years of work as an award-winning nonprofit we decided to start transporting contraband,” the nonprofit wrote in a tweet.

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