A.R.T. partners with Books to Prisoners Seattle to provide A.R.T. Library Program books directly to incarcerated readers. To learn more about the group's history and the work they do to connect readers with books in prison, A.R.T. spoke with longstanding member and librarian Michelle Dillon. The interview was conducted by A.R.T. Board Member and prison justice activist Jo Miller-Gamble.
Jo Miller-Gamble: How long has Books to Prisoners been around?
Michelle Dillon: Our messaging depends on who we're talking to. In the less radical version, we say that by the early '70s it was clear that people who were incarcerated needed more help, and we wanted to help supply books and support them while they were incarcerated.
If we're talking about the more radical version, the George Jackson Brigade happened, Attica, all of that stuff. And that really inspired people across the country to pay more attention to all of the abuses happening inside. That included people in Seattle who were affiliated with Left Bank Books, which is still in operation downtown and still is our host bookstore, where we began to send books from. In the beginning, all of the books we sent were to political prisoners, and later we expanded, recognizing the need was a lot broader. The number of people we’re able to reach is constantly in flux because of how the prison systems treat the subject of books and who they deem as a verified bookstore and a trusted seller. But right now, we're sitting at about 45 states that we can send to.
MD: And we're just one group. We started way back in 1973, and at that point it was just our group in Seattle and a group in Quincy, Massachusetts. Now there are about three to four dozen prison book programs across the country all working with the same mission. Books to Prisoners, Seattle is proud to be one of the oldest and largest of those. We serve about 12,000 people a year. We exist in a loosely affiliated network. We're hoping to build all of these organizations into an actual working alliance.
JMG: That's interesting to hear you talk about creating an alliance. From what I’ve seen there are so many small organizations, it can be hard to keep track.
MD: Yes. They're always flickering in and out because they're grassroots. They tend to be anarchists. That's the roots of Books to Prisoners, and that's great — there’s a lot of positives in that — but it also means that it can be hard to maintain momentum because you are generally putting the burden onto a few volunteers. They might not have a lot of support in terms of funding or volunteers. Book donations tend to come very easily. People love giving us books. But the hours of work necessary to vet letters, find the books that the prison will actually let in, package the books, get them to the post office — that's a lot harder. And that's probably one of the reasons why there are certain groups that have been able to maintain operations for as long as they have while others have not.
JMG: I was talking to somebody from a similar group and they told me off the record that they had to designate themselves as a publisher so that prisons would accept packages from them.
MD: It’s a common problem and why we still maintain the shelter of Left Bank Books. Prisons do tend to give us less grief if we have that on our label.
It’s always an uphill battle though. A lot of our groups also tend to spend a lot of our time proactively censoring ourselves because we have such limited resources — we can't afford to blindly send books to places or to keep trying in areas where we are 99% confident that there will be a problem. We don't have the capacity to fight every battle, so we limit ourselves to the places where we know we can reliably send in materials.
JMG: It sounds like every prison is a different story. What are some changes you’ve observed since you started doing this work?
MD: A lot more people know about it — that's the biggest change. When I started doing this 10 years ago, social media had much less of a presence. By 2012, Twitter was definitely a thing but not of the magnitude that it is today. And the resistance against prisons in general was not what it is today. Having that public backing has made us more confident. On the other hand, we've got tablets coming up which is the next big fight that we're all seeing.
JMG: Can you tell me more about that?
MD: Tablets in prisons are controlled by basically two companies: JPay — which also controls most phone communications and some other things inside of prisons — and they are under the umbrella of Securus and Aventiv. They put out tablets, which are basically crappier versions of iPads with less capacity and worse access. Depending on the facility, these tablets can access music, movies, educational content, email, phones, books.
In a vacuum, these tablets are great developments. Anybody who has an incarcerated loved one or advocates for people who are incarcerated sees them as a positive achievement because instead of having to wait in a long line to make a phone call at a certain time, making a call can hypothetically be a lot more convenient. And you have access to all of this media that you would have had very limited access before.
Unfortunately, because they are being put out by private companies that have also been responsible for price-gouging incarcerated people in many capacities over the decades, what has happened in implementation is that there are a bunch of cheap cash-grabs and giant markups.
Depending on the contract, tablets are sometimes provided for free to incarcerated people, sometimes for the length of incarceration, or sometimes for a certain period during the day. In other systems, inmates have to purchase the tablets. Regardless of whether inmates have purchased a tablet or not, they always have to purchase the content.
JMG: Have you seen or do you expect to see this becoming an excuse to ban shipped physical books?
MD: Yes, 100%. We are already seeing a shift across the country from physical mail to digital mail.
JMG: I can’t help but imagine these tablets also being used as a form of further surveillance.
MD: They absolutely are, and also as bargaining chips because there are a lot of ways to get your tablet taken away.
JMG: Well that is all very disturbing. To shift gears a little bit, what are some of the most popular books that are sent or requested? And can you tell me about the system you use for sending books and taking requests?
MD: Anybody who is incarcerated at a prison — state or federal — can send us a letter once every nine months. It sounds extremely low, and I wish that people could make requests more often, but 12,000 people or more write us every year, and it costs about $4 to send a package of books. At the current levels, we are spending about $50,000 just on postage, and fundraising that amount for an organization like ours is quite impressive. We have a lot of very generous donors who have been with us — in some cases for three or four decades — giving every month.
People write to us and we look at restrictions that we know the prison has. Do they not accept hardback books? Do they limit the number of books in the package? Do they require good condition only?
We write any known restrictions on the front of the letter and we place it in our queue. On volunteer shifts, people come in, look at letters in the queue, and then walk around our on-site library to find books that best match what the person is looking for. We rely on donations to stock our library so it's always a rotating stock. We refer to it as a river of books because books come in, and the books come out. You never know what's going to be on the shelves.
JMG: Do you receive feedback from the people that you send books to?
MD: We do. We actually put out a book of thank you letters a few years ago. This project was initiated because we get so many thank you letters, and so many drawings, and other little thank you gifts from people on a regular basis. We wanted to represent that to the public, but without bypassing the consent or knowledge of people who had sent them. In general, people write back to us with everything from, "I got the books. They were great,” to, "Hey, thanks to this book that you sent I now know this new skill, or I’ve been able to prepare for xyz.”
When I was in grad school for Library and Information Science at the University of Washington, we had to do a Capstone project where we solved an organization’s information need. I looked at these incoming requests at Books to Prisoners and I categorized them by doing a cluster analysis. I found that for all the letters that had multiple requests, they tended to be in clusters. People were looking for self-help like improvement. They were looking for crochet or how to draw or learn Spanish, things like that. And then the next cluster was world knowledge. A lot of people were writing about ancient history or Black history or certain kinds of current politics. And the third cluster was escapism. That was all the fantasy, sci-fi, & westerns. Romance sometimes gets requested too. But yeah, it turns out that our number one request historically — and I doubt that it'll ever change — is for dictionaries.
JMG: I wouldn't have expected that.
MD: I know, but it makes a lot of sense when you take a step back because a lot of people need dictionaries for a lot of things. We’re so used to using Google to find something or define a word. You don't have that access when you're incarcerated. You don't have the internet. A lot of people are doing everything from writing books to teaching themselves English to trying to write their own legal briefs.
JMG: Maybe this is obvious but I’m struck by how much more urgent and utilitarian reading can be for people who are incarcerated. Works of fiction provide momentary escape, and self-help or skill-based books prepare people for another world that will hopefully manifest when they're released. And I guess world knowledge is like a combination of those two drives. I spoke with Samah Majadla who works at Prison Books Collective in North Carolina and asked if this kind of work affects their own relationship to reading. Having interfaced with people who have such limited access to reading material, are there ways that your personal reading habits have changed?
MD: That's a really good question. As a librarian, my thirst for books has always been pretty high, so not in an obvious way. But also, having conversations like these makes me grateful when I stop and look around and realize that absolutely every room of my house is crammed with books. I think back to all of the letters that I've read from people who talk about being in solitary confinement and having had one book to read for the last two weeks, and how diminished I would feel. I can walk to the library and grab a whole stack of books, and when I walk into my workplace there are books abounding.
I think it's hard not to become inured to this kind of depravation when you're outside of prison walls. Unless something has changed recently, in Alabama you're still only allowed to get two books through the mail per month, which makes it hard for groups like ours because we don't know if we're duplicating somebody else.
And once again, the prison system will give every excuse. They'll talk about how people create fire hazards with the books, et cetera.
JMG: The thought of people being limited to two books in prison really puts into perspective the idea of intention.
MD: Sometimes we get letters from people who have just been released and some of them will mention how the book that they got from us is one of the few things that they left with. When you have that little, objects become exceptionally meaningful; almost totemistic.
JMG: Well Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time.
MD: Of course! It’s been wonderful talking to you.
Jo Miller-Gamble is an artist, musician, and director at Rumpelstiltskin Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. He is also a longtime supporter of the Parole Preparation Project where he volunteered in 2016 and 2017.