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The power of a single book

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Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for your own copy of this newsletter here.


A stepping stone to further learning

Tucked behind an interior design shop on Greenwood Avenue in north Seattle is a hidden repository of books that will eventually find their way into prisons across the country. The collection belongs to Books to Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that traces its roots back to the early 1970s and the opening of Left Bank Books, an anarchist bookstore in Pike Place Market. 

The organization originally focused on support for political prisoners but over the years has become less political, broadening its mission to promoting self-empowerment and literacy, says Andy Chan, president of the organization’s board. Many prisoners say that their interest in learning, and in some cases, desire for education, started by reading a single book. 

Before the pandemic, Books to Prisoners received as many as 1400 letters a month. More recently, requests have gone down slightly, but the need has never been greater with access to prison libraries extremely limited due to COVID-19 safety precautions. People incarcerated in three Washington State prisons, for example, say they haven’t been able to go to the library in almost two years. And even access to law libraries, which are legally required due to a 1977 Supreme Court decision, has been restricted.

Chan says that most prisons have some kind of library, but incarcerated people report that the texts are outdated or they have limited access to them. That’s one of the reasons why Books to Prisoners has focused on sending literature to individuals rather than supplying prison libraries.

Restrictions on used books
Photo by Charlotte West

The Seattle nonprofit, one of 30 some prison book programs in the United States, sends literature to prisons nationwide – at least in places where they are allowed in. 

Some states have banned books from nonprofits or they don’t allow used books, citing the potential for contraband. The Washington State Department of Corrections, for example, attempted to prohibit people in prison from receiving used books in the mail in 2019, but quickly backtracked after public outcry. 

Chan says they generally expect not to be able to send books to state prisons in Alabama, Michigan, and New Mexico because Books to Prisoners is not an “authorized” vendor, while Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota only accept new books. 

Matching supply and demand

People send letters asking for specific books or subjects and then volunteers try to match the prisoner’s request with whatever books are available and are allowed at that particular facility. Chan says the requests range from “‘let me have books, please’” to 10-page, single-spaced lists of titles, authors, ISBN numbers, and publishers. 

“The frustrating thing is obviously that there are millions of titles but we don’t have every single book out there,” he says. 

Instead, volunteers are told to find books that are as closely aligned with the requests as possible. While that works well for prisoners who are just looking for general reading material, it can be challenging for people who are hoping the organization can help them with research requests or specific educational material. At times of peak demand, it can also take several months for Books to Prisoners to respond to requests, though Chan says they are relatively caught up at the moment. 

Some books – like an English-Dutch dictionary – have sat on the shelves for years, while other titles like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and Soledad Brothers by George Jackson go out almost as soon as they come in. 

The most frequently requested books are dictionaries. Photo by Charlotte West

The most frequently requested books are dictionaries and the most popular genres are Black studies, sci fi, fantasy, and horror. They also receive a lot of inquiries about literature on how to draw, learning Spanish, and vocational technology, Chan says. On the flip side, they have an overabundance of literary fiction. 

Books to Prisoners works with a book recycler that donates around 10 tons of literature per year. They also accept “gently used” books from individuals. But that can lead to a mismatch. “The population who donates is not going to be reflective of the requesting population,” Chan says. “Historically we have gotten a lot more romance novels than we could ever get through. We also have a labor section and an antinuclear section that nobody ever requests from.”

Restrictions and rejections

Chan says they attempt to “self-censor” to increase the likelihood that particular books won’t be rejected from particular prisons. “We know what can get in and what can’t get into most prisons most of the time,” he says. “If we know it’s not going to get in, we’re not going to send it.”

Chan, who sorts all of the letters that come in, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of which states allow what type of books and what other restrictions might come into play. California, for instance, bans hardcover books and other states have limits on the number of books a prisoner can receive. 

In January Books to Prisoners got national attention when they shared on social media a rejection from a private prison in Tennessee, where “Malcolm X Not Allowed” was written on the notice. Marshall Project journalist Keri Blakinger tweeted in February that Michigan bans books on how to learn Spanish because it “could be used by prisoners to learn to communicate in a language that staff at the facility does not understand.”

Chan adds that many prisons reject books on American Sign Language “because they are concerned that it means that prisoners will be able to silently communicate.”

Literature with imagery is also more likely to be banned. “In terms of the restrictions, usually most prisons are okay with the written word,” Chan says. “If you show so much as a butt crack or a nipple in pictorial form, that will get rejected from pretty much every single prison.”

The rise of mail scanning services such as Smart Communications, a Florida-based vendor that has been contracted by states such as Pennsylvania to digitize incoming mail, has added an additional layer of complication. Some states have a different mailing address for publications and packages. 

Chan says reading is often a stepping stone to further learning, even with titles that might not be considered literary classics. Volunteers at Books to Prisoners are trained not to judge requests for specific kinds of literature. 

“There may be a variety of different reasons why someone would want to read Purple Panties, as opposed to something else,” Chan says. “But maybe it could be a way into education. They’ll read Purple Panties today, maybe they’ll read Shakespeare tomorrow.”

If you’re interested in donating to Books to Prisoners, Chan asks you to contact the organization at BooksToPrisoners@live.com to make sure it’s material they are able to use. Books on topics they can’t use create more work for volunteers, Chan says. People in prison who would like to receive free books can write to Books to Prisoners, ℅ Left Bank Books, 92 Pike Street Box A, Seattle, WA 98101. Please be patient as the time to process requests can range from weeks to months.

Gender studies and prison ed in Wyoming

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A recent debate in Wyoming is a case study in how the nation’s current discourse on critical race theory and gender studies could have a significant impact on prison education.

At the end of February, Republican state senators in Wyoming passed a budget amendment that would have prevented the University of Wyoming from using state money for gender studies classes, a move that could have had implications for the state’s only prison education program. 

The Wyoming Pathways from Prison program is housed in the Gender and Women’s Studies program at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The program, started in 2015, serves all four of the state’s men’s prisons and one women’s prison, offering both non-credit classes and some for-credit classes in collaboration with local community colleges. Faculty who teach in the program volunteer and the program is not currently funded with state dollars. 

Although the state doesn’t directly pay for Pathways from Prison, many of the most active faculty in the program teach gender studies, said Robert Colter, philosophy professor and co-director of the program. The proposed legislation could have also impacted what courses could be taught, mirroring the effect on campus, he said. 

The vague wording in the budget amendment would have potentially prevented University of Wyoming from using any funding, including federal dollars from the Second Chance Pell program the prison education program has applied for, for courses focused on gender. 

For the time being, however, gender studies at University of Wyoming is no longer under threat. Wyoming Public Media reported that funding was restored this week in the state’s final budget. 

Research & resources

Led by the inaugural cohort of its Justice Fellows Policy Program, The Education Trust analyzed state support of currently and formerly incarcerated students in eight states where the nonprofit works — California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. The analysis looks at issues such as state financial aid, sentence reductions for participating in higher education, and criminal history questions on admissions applications. You can find the report, A Toolkit for Advancing College Opportunity for Justice-Impacted Students, on the EdTrust website. Reporter Rebecca Kelliher also digs more into the report for Diverse Education

The University of Southern California Dornsife Prison Education Project is sponsoring the National Adult and Youth Systems-Impacted Writers Awards. They are inviting writers to share their educational experiences both inside and outside of the classroom in a piece of creative writing. Deadline is April 1 and details on criteria, eligibility, and how to submit are available here

PEN America is distributing 75,000 copies of The Sentences That Create Us, a book on writing behind bars. A free copy can be requested online at https://t.co/ST7zHTQawK, or by writing to: Prison Writing Program c/o PEN America, 588 Broadway Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.

Ithaka S+R and Ennead Lab are launching a two-year research and design project to look at the challenges and opportunities of the physical spaces where higher education is delivered in prison. Please contact kurtis.tanaka@ithaka.org for more information.

News & views

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange co-published my story on college programs for incarcerated youth, At detention facilities offering high school diplomas, college classes are seen as a next step. I look at how states like California, Utah, and New Jersey are providing higher education for a growing number of high school graduates still in the juvenile justice system. 

At the beginning of March, the Wyoming state senate appropriations committee gutted a proposed $50 million endowment that would have funded Wyoming’s Tomorrow Scholarship, a state financial aid program to support nontraditional students who are 24 year or older. Unlike other state scholarship programs in Wyoming, students with criminal convictions would have been eligible as long as they weren’t incarcerated when they applied for financial aid.

This month, Colorado launched Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio, the first statewide radio station in the United States to be recorded and produced by people in prison (thanks to Pat for sending me the link!). Anyone with an internet connection can listen to the station 24-hour-a-day. The program is supported by the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative and will reach more than 14,000 incarcerated listeners, the Denver Post reports. 

A proposal by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, to restore the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for incarcerated New Yorkers is making headway in the state legislature. Seven members of the New York House have backed the program, Spectrum News reports. A poll, sponsored by a coalition advocating for TAP reinstatement, released Wednesday found that 58 percent of New York State voters favor restoring financial aid for incarcerated people compared to 28 percent who are opposed. If the legislation passes, New York would become the second state to repeal a state-wide ban following New Jersey, which put a similar law into effect in 2020.

The Appeal and Dissent Magazine collaborated to publish How Corporations Turned Prison Tablets Into a Predatory Scheme. “If prison telecom companies have it their way, tablets will not function as tools for education and rehabilitation—as both companies and correction systems have disingenuously promised—but as another extractive scheme,” the authors write.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. Right now, I’m especially interested in speaking with anyone experiencing challenges accessing Second Chance Pell Grants because of student loan default and juvenile lifers who have been shut out of education programs because of the length of their sentence. 

You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka

To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Charlotte West, Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062. 

— Charlotte

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