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.)
While not mandated by the state, DOC spokesperson Chad Lewis states that “there are some facilities that only allow books to come from certain vendors.” While official state policy says that “offenders may receive gift subscriptions and/or publications from any party other than another offender or the friends or family of another unrelated offender,” the personal-property policy states that “offenders may acquire personal property only through the following sources: 1. Facility offender stores, 2. Approved vendors.”
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.”
Seattle’s Prison Legal News, the nation’s longest-running prison newsletter, has had its own share of troubles getting its materials—including books—sent to prisoners. After discovering that PLN wasn’t on the initial list at Airway Heights, Editor Paul Wright petitioned for and received approved vendor status.
“It’s probably unconstitutional,” he says of the lists. “But it’s going to take someone to step up to the plate and challenge it.”
Theoretically, the concept of approved vendors is to provide offenders with their books in a more timely fashion. “This is good for the offenders,” says Risa Klemme, Airway Heights’ public information officer, adding that books no longer have to go through the second step of the package room, where items were catalogued before being distributed.
In order to compile their approved vendor list, Klemme says, workers “identified vendors our offenders commonly used. We met with the tier reps and got some agreements on what vendors we selected.” She says 16 tier reps—i.e., inmate representatives—were contacted.
Yet one of McLean’s pen pals at Airway Heights is a tier rep, and his complaints have thus far gone unheard. “He’s trying to challenge it,” says McLean. “He filled out the grievance form…but nothing.”
While Washington state isn’t alone in only allowing new books (Oregon also only allows books from publishers and major national distributors like Amazon.com), its adherence to the approved vendor policy has made it, according to BTP’s Chan, “a pretty tough nut” compared to other states. Airway Heights’ Klemme says this is a moot point, as prisoners still have access to all the reading material they’d want. “We have a library,” she explains. “It’s not like they don’t have access to any books.”
Indeed, Airway Heights’ library is open 20 hours a week, but how long a library is open for and how much access inmates have aren’t the same thing. “I worked at the jail library briefly, and I know they just throw stuff on a cart and everyone [clamors for] it…it’s kind of sad,” says McLean. “Their access to the library is very limited; both of my pen pals have complained about that. One can get access to the wood shop, or he can try to run with 30 or 50 people to the library for a half an hour. So he usually forgoes it because he hates [literally sprinting to the library] and doing that. So he just stays in the wood shop.”
McLean’s Buddhist pen pal sent her the approved vendor list in a letter after becoming frustrated with the restrictions placed on his desired material. “The deal is,” she says, reading from his letter, “the mailroom here is extremely lazy. So to make it easier on them, they came up with the vendor list, which I enclosed. To me, it seems discriminating because I can’t get books from other bookstores because it didn’t make some list. Besides, don’t I have a right to freedom of press or publication? The Zen Mountain Monastery can’t send me free books anymore.”
In order to be added to the approved vendor list, a few criteria have to be met. “We have to be sure that it’s not a small business running out of a home or garage that could close overnight,” says Christiansen. “It’s to protect the vendor from being able to correct errors with the shipment or a problem with the product, making sure they’re established enough so the company doesn’t forget to fill the order, or runs out of money and possibly goes out of business. And we want to make sure that they can process any return items and money, too, so that’s the basic criteria for approval.”
But the entire point of BTP is that it doesn’t charge the prisoners any money for the books they receive. And the books it gets the most requests for—technical manuals for inmates wishing to improve skills like repairing motors—are also the most expensive to buy. Regarding Books to Prisoners, Christiansen says, “I’ve never dealt with them, but I’ve heard they deal with used books. I don’t know anything about them. If they want people to buy their books, they can request to be added to the list.”
“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.”