by Leigh Ann Smith
– The Capitol Hill Times –
“Books allow us to live vicariously – to feel – to acknowledge emotions that have much scar tissue.” This quote comes from a prisoner expressing gratitude for books received from the Seattle-based program Books to Prison. 12,000 to 18,000 handwritten requests for books are mailed annually from inmates in Washington State and nationally. For prisoners, books are more than entertainment; books provide the tools to help them make sense of their lives and circumstances.
Great literature and prisons have a curious relationship with each other. “Don Quixote,” written by Miguel de Cervantes and widely recognized as the first modern novel, was written behind bars. America’s own romantic Henry David Thoreau spent one day in jail for not paying the poll tax. He found the incident so disturbing that he penned “Civil Disobedience” as a result, famously known for encouraging non-violent resistance to the state. Fast forward to today, and the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” set to air this week is inspired by real life Piper Kerman’s memoir detailing her 18 months spent behind bars.
In the Washington State Correction Center for Women, 50 women prisoners began reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen this week in their summer literature program. The women chose the book to further explore the universal themes that Austen’s works are known for: love, money, power, and status. An apt book selection for women who know a thing or two about what it means to be undone by these forces.
The WCCW book groups are run by the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit working to increase access to educational opportunities for women prisoners and former prisoners in Washington State. The nonprofit teaches college-accredited classes year round and started a library at WCCW in 2012. At the time, romance novels were the majority of books that women had access to.
Now, thanks to FEPP, volunteers, and donations from area colleges, the library contains over 2,000 books inclusive of great works of literature like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” to popular thrillers by Steven King. Still, books are hard to come by in prisons. Washington State law prohibits any state money for education in prisons. Citing security reasons, the Department of Corrections in most states require books to come from a bookstore or publisher. Family and friends are typically not allowed to send books, as is the case in Washington State. Plus, most inmates simply can’t afford to purchase the few available for them to purchase inside the prison. Women at WCCW, for example, make less than .50 cents an hour, a fairly standard wage for all prisoners.
FEPP Director and University of Puget Sound professor Tanya Erzen said, “When you educate prisoners, especially women, it breaks generational cycles of poverty.”In the process, it also saves the taxpayer money and reduces recidivism rates. A 2013 Rand Corporation study found that those prisoners who take college courses while incarcerated are 45 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not.
Alyssa, a woman inmate participating in one of FEPP’s programs said, “How lucky we are to have someone who is saying, ‘Rise to the occasion. We believe in you.’ It is a rarity in this place, and I feel fortunate to be a part of such a groundbreaking program.”
Book to Prison President Andy Chan and Erzen are both encouraged by the conversations and interest in prison reform taking place nationwide. “I think I see glimmers of hope with people at the grassroots pushing for being smart-on-crime,” said Chan. “And part of that is supporting efforts to increase education, literacy and an interest in reading.”
Chan is right. Just last month, the National Academy of the Sciences released a greater than 400-page report recommending drastic policy changes for the criminal justice system. Even tough-on-crime conservatives like Newt Gingrich are raising awareness of the staggering economic, legal, and human costs of a system locking up one out of every 200 Americans.
Books themselves are not the cure-all to what ails America’s prison system or its more than 2.2 million prisoners; they are, however, a lifeline to education, to the outside world, and to possibility.
Currently, besides active community members, neither Capitol Hill bookstores or the correction centers are engaged with Books to Prisoners. The Capitol Hill Times spoke with the First Hill Detention Center, which said that since juvenile centers have a lot of turnover, by the time that the organization is able to send a packet to a specific person, that person has usually moved on.
But if books are helping prisoners rehabilitate, perhaps they should be encouraged more in schools and at home as a preemptive measure. In Capitol Hill, there are many outlets. Every day The Elliot Bay Book Company (1521 10th Avenue) hosts readings by local and beyond authors. The Capitol Hill Branch Library (425 Harvard Avenue East) has a book club and bi-weekly children’s storytime. Those who want to create their own literature can find support and classes at The Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Avenue). Ada’s Technical Books (425 15th Avenue East) opened not too long ago to round out reader’s selections, and then there are discounted used books at Twice Sold Tales (1833 Harvard Avenue). For those who prefer it, there’s even a spot for comics at Phoenix Comics and Games (113 Broadway Avenue East).
The Freedom Education Project for Puget Sound kicks off its summer reading program June 15. Tutors, lecturers, and instructors are needed. If interested in learning more visit www.fepps.org. To donate used or new books, contact bookstoprisoners.net.