Unlocking the Gates: An Introduction to the Prison Book Program
M. Elaine Mar is a writer who finds herself most productive at the Sherman Café in Somerville, MA.
From an inmate requesting children's books: "The children's books are for my 9-year-old daughter. Something short that I can read to her on the phone, but long enough not to be childish. She is a smart and beautiful girl."
From an inmate requesting books on electrical wiring: "Myself and other inmate electricians will study every page. I teach both female and male inmates electric & electronics. Several are now working on the streets as electricians."
From an inmate in a maximum security facility: "Some of us do not have televisions and we find that reading books is about the only other way there is to pass the time without dwelling on it."
Nearly two and a half million people in the US are currently incarcerated. Many do not have a high school education, but endeavor to further their learning while serving their sentences, both for personal growth and in order to increase their chances for employment once they are released. Yet prison libraries are not a policy priority, and most prisons do not allow private individuals to send books to inmates; only publishers and bookstores are permitted to do so. But because inmates tend to have little money, and prisons are increasingly charging them for room, board, and other items, ordering books from traditional bookstores or publishers is often not an option.
The Prison Book Program (PBP), operating out of basement space donated by the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, seeks to redress the chronic educational insufficiencies in the prison system by sending free books to prisoners nationwide. The Prison Book Program was first organized by the Red Book Store Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1972. Initially, members of PBP worked with members of support and study groups in seven Massachusetts prisons. Some members of that early incarnation of PBP were teaching courses themselves, and many of the current volunteers are also involved in other prison education programs.
From the beginning, PBP supplied instructors with books to use in their study groups, and also sent books of interest to individual prisoners with whom the support groups came in contact. Those involved felt the powerful connection the commitment to educating an underserved population forged between people on both sides of the prison walls. As word spread about PBP, requests increased for a broader range of materials. Self-help groups of diverse inmate populations -- Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, lesbians, gay men and others -- began to rely on PBP for information they could study and pass on to others. In the early seventies, an ad about PBP ran in The Midnight Special, a New York-based prisoners' paper. Requests for books increased from 14 to 40 in a week. Today, PBP receives more than 100 requests a week.
I became involved with PBP through a volunteer workday organized by my Quaker Meeting. PBP has regular volunteer hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. About once a month it also has Saturday afternoon volunteer sessions; our Meeting's group came to one of these. Volunteers were already bustling about when I arrived that first Saturday, some as part of an organized group, others individually. In addition to our Quaker group, there was a singles' volunteer organization, and an African-American fraternity with students from various Boston-area colleges. Later in the day, a group of high school students would arrive, and on subsequent trips volunteering on my own, I met youth and adult members from a church in Western Massachusetts.
The church's main basement room was spacious, although minimally finished. Daylight came through windows at ground level; despite the climbing heat outside, we remained pleasantly cool. A number of large round tables were set up in the middle of the room, and volunteers had already begun packaging books. This space serves other functions however -- for instance, the church uses it for a free lunch open to the community every weekday -- so at the end of volunteer sessions, PBP returns all its materials to the single small room that serves as its office and stockroom. This room is down a back hallway where the church's Sunday School classrooms are also located. Walking there, I saw the wall hangings that had resulted from their lessons. One long stretch of hall was covered with a quilt that gave statistics about the lack of potable water worldwide.
The PBP room is small, and packed with books. The shelves are arranged by subject matter, much as in any bookstore, except less reliably stocked. Because all PBP's books are donated, a prisoner cannot be guaranteed that a specific request can be fulfilled. Most often it is not. Volunteers simply do their best to find something in the same general category, a suspense novel when the letter asks for John Grisham, for instance. But the number one book requested has no replacement. The top request by an overwhelming majority is a dictionary, and these go fast.
Due to the restrictions imposed by individual prisons, volunteers may become frustrated when selecting books for inmates. The specific book may be available, but not in a condition acceptable to the prison. Many prisons will not allow hardcovers, for instance. Some require that the books arrive with an invoice, or that inmates request prior written approval for the books. Not all restrictions are logical, and PBP cannot be assured that the books sent reach their intended recipient. Therefore, PBP also sends a postcard separate from each package of books, listing which books have been sent and asking the prisoners to contact the program if they have not received them within a month. PBP tracks the responses to check for patterns of censorship in individual prisons.
Any books donated that PBP cannot use outright it tries to sell, in order to raise money for postage. Each package costs about $3.00 to send. If the restriction bans PBP from sending books to prisons in a certain state or individual facility, we send a copy of the National Prisoner Resource List (NPRL). Since 1988 PBP has compiled, published, and distributed this list, which provides a broad range of information about resources available to prisoners, including: the kind of materials available through PBP; contact information for other free books to prisoner programs; legal advocacy services; resources for legal publications and education; social support systems for prisoners and their families; women's resources; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender support; HIV/AIDS and hepatitis facts and resources; religious and spiritual outreach. An NPRL is included in every shipment of books -- except to prisons that do not allow it. (Some of these states and prisons are serviced by other free books to prisoner programs. The work of PBP and other prison book programs is dependent on the relationship between the prison administration and the volunteer staff of the book programs.)
The next step after sorting is selection of books, then packaging, then verification of location, then "quality control." A prison may reject a package for torn wrapping or insufficient addressee information. One of the most vital details to get right when addressing a package is the inmate's number -- regardless of how the volunteer feels about the matter. Thus, the most menial of tasks -- swaddling a package with wrapping tape, writing in careful penmanship, paying attention to the prisoner's name and number both (no matter how scribbled the handwriting) -- becomes an act of extreme care. We want to make sure the package gets to the intended recipient.
In quality control that first Saturday, we were encouraged to connect to the task and the inmates whose packaging we were checking by reading the request letters. In this way, like the first members of PBP, I came to feel a very deep connection to the writers on the other side of the wall. I had only committed to volunteering three hours that day, and I was surprised and saddened when they had elapsed. I decided to return. Now PBP is part of my weekly schedule. Doing this service helps me connect to everything that is divine in this world. Like clean drinking water, education is a human right. PBP and other programs like it are necessary to fulfill the vision for this right.
PBP is the oldest continuously running program of its kind in the US, surviving three moves, the closing of the Red Book Store, and relocation offsite from the bookstore which subsequently adopted it, the Lucy Parsons Center and Book Store. It is vital for PBP to have a connection with a bookstore, regardless of name, in order for the program to continue to operate. Staffed entirely by volunteers and drawing from a stock of donated books, today PBP manages to send over 10,000 free books to prisoners a year, breaking the isolation of those incarcerated and the barrier between those on opposite sides of the wall.
"I would like to express my appreciation for your kindness
and dedication to putting substance back into the word ëcorrections,'
also for assisting me thru such trying times with tools to free
myself mentally. Thanks for unlocking the gates." --
A prisoner from Sussex, IL.
To Get Involved
To request books or information about resources for prisoners, write to the Prison Book Program, c/o Lucy Parsons Bookstore, 1306 Hancock St., Suite #100, Quincy, MA 02169. PBP can not send books to California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, or Graterford, PA.
To learn how to volunteer or donate books, money, or packing materials
to the Prison Book Program, visit www.prisonbookprogram.org