NEW YORK—Washington State’s decision to dramatically restrict access to used books in prisons, including a ban on people in prison receiving books from non-profits, is a misguided and hurtful policy that should immediately be rescinded, PEN America said today.

On March 29th, the non-profit Books for Prisoners revealed that Washington State’s Department of Corrections had quietly rolled out a new policy banning used publications within state prisons, with three narrowly enumerated exceptions. This policy includes the instruction that “Effective March 25, 2019, facilities will no longer allow or accept used books into the facility from non-profit vendors.”

In the past few years, with the stated aim of blocking contraband from entering prisons, various states as well as the federal prison system have attempted to dramatically restrict book deliveries to incarcerated people, or shut down such deliveries entirely. In the past two years alone, PEN America has joined others in decrying such policies in New YorkMaryland, and around the country. After public outcry, some of these policies have been rescinded or amended.

“This is a misguided policy that will negatively impact the lives of thousands of incarcerated people throughout Washington State,” said James Tager, Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America. “Literature offers a way for people in prison to expand their minds, to retain a sense of connection to the outside community, to pass the time, and to continue educating themselves from within prison walls. These new regulations will have a devastating effect on all of that. These new rules are a mistake, and we hope that Washington State’s leaders will see that and rescind them immediately.”

“Literature is one of the most important vehicles we have to shape, express, and connect to our humanity,” said Caits Meissner, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program Director. “In prison, where incarcerated people are degraded and stripped of personal value, books offer a path back to society, a sense of self, a way back to humanity. None of us—no matter which side of the wall we stand on—can afford what bans on books in prison seem to suggest: that our incarcerated community members are no longer human. That they will only resume being human when, and if, they return home.” 

PEN America has long championed the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of the written word through programs including the Prison Writing Program, founded in 1971, and its recently-launched Writing for Justice Fellowship which commissions writers to illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration. 


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: [email protected]