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Fulfilling Prisoner’s Paperback Dreams

Local non-profit organization provides thousands of books to those incarcerated

A+prison+cell+at+Washington+Corrections%0ACenter+for+Women.+
A prison cell at Washington Corrections
Center for Women.

A prison cell at Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Washington Department of Corrections

Washington Department of Corrections

A prison cell at Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Eleanor Dudley, Features Editor

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Today in America there are hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated. Prisons are bleak places, where people watch their hopes and dreams evaporate while they stare at a wall for infinite hours.

According to USA facts, 728,600 people were incarcerated in America in 2015. This number, although high, shows a decline in prison populations since 2010.

Current efforts are underway in Washington state to increase prisoners access to books and learning.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign a new law this year that would allow prisoners to receive two-year college degrees paid for by the state. The goal is to better prepare prisoners to reenter society after they have served their time.

Non-profit organizations have been trying to do this in various ways for years. In Seattle, the organization Books to Prisoners sends 15,000 books to incarcerations across the country every year.

The program is sponsored by Left Bank Books, a well-known anarchist bookstore located in Pike Place Market.

Originally founded in the early 1970s, the program has expanded over the years. It started with volunteers only but now includes a full-time staff. Current program manager, Michelle Dillion, spoke at the National High School Journalism Convention held in Seattle in early April. She was a young graduate student at the University of Washington when she first discovered the organization.

“I started reading through the letters from the individuals, just expressing the most basic needs,” Dillion said. She was moved by the prisoners simple requests and the lack of opportunities they faced.

For the past three years Dillion has worked to ensure the books prisoner’s request end up in their hands. This is quite a challenge as most incarceration centers have tight regulations and banned-book lists.

“Prisons are very isolating places,” Dillion said. “Part of that are the systems of control – often arbitrary, often capricious – that you find on every level.”

In the face of this isolation, prisoners turn to books to guide them. From Western novels to GED materials to the ever popular dictionary, the requests reflect each prisoner.

“So often in prisons people get used to being identified by a number. I think our organization helps them remember they truly are still individuals,” Dillion said.

By acknowledging prisoners’ individuality and providing support for them to pursue their dreams, Books to Prisoners is giving the gift of knowledge and providing valuable opportunities, with long-term payoffs.

A 2013 study by the RAND Corp. found that inmates who are involved in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison, and their employment rates were 13 percent higher than those who do not.

In the tumultuous state of American politics, efforts such as these are a reminder that lives can be changed by little things and the power of books and learning is undeniable.

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Fulfilling Prisoner’s Paperback Dreams