Two (and sometimes three) times a week, Books Through Bars volunteers meet at our space in Brooklyn to match requests people in prison have sent us in the mail to the books on our shelves. (Learn more about how we started by reading an interview with the co-founder). We mail book packages to individuals rather than prison libraries. Our book collection is donated by members of the community. Because we manage to get by in donated space, with donated books, donated packing materials, and volunteer labor, our only expense is postage. To meet this much needed expense, we hold fundraisers and look for other opportunities for receiving funds.
We are a group of activists, librarians & archivists, editors, students, office workers, teachers, authors and other book lovers, and we welcome you to come to a packing session whenever you can make it, for however long you like. Travelers passing through town are more than welcome, too.
Why We Do It
Members of the Books Through Bars Collective have different beliefs about the American prison system — some of us are abolitionists, and some are pro-prison-reform. But all of us are startled and angered by how difficult it is for people in prison to access decent educational reading material on the inside. We believe literacy and access to reading material is a human right.
Connecting those behind bars to books and other resources is an important harm-reduction strategy. The violences of prison are many. The denial of access to education and contact with the outside world is one. With our work, we aim to address educational inequity. Prisons have slashed educational programs and the federal government still denies Pell Grants to those in prison. We provide education, but NYC BTB also bridges a gap between the incarcerated and the “free” world. Our work decreases isolation and empowers those behind bars by providing resources and community.
Many prison libraries are understocked and out of date. For those with low literacy levels or limited English-language skills, the obstacles to resources are redoubled. We have often received letters written on behalf of cellmates with these language barriers. Many envelopes contain requests from multiple people because each person cannot afford the postage to send their own letter. Requesters often seek educational materials, such as English-language dictionaries, GED, writing, math, or Spanish-language books.
Our books, we are often told, enjoy wide circulation among those inside. Our recipients tell us that the books we send are cherished and greatly improve their quality of life. Moreover, we strive to connect people in prison to radical literature—prisons intentionally preclude access to such resources. Many of the incarcerated who write to use request books on indigenous resistance and history, queer and trans sexuality, feminism, and more.
Our work facilitates community-building on three levels: 1) incarcerated person to incarcerated person, building lifelines and communities through book and information sharing; 2) incarcerated person to “free” world, connecting those behind bars with a community of activists on the outside; and 3) “free” world to “free” world, with our packing sessions serving as a space for volunteers to gather and connect their activist, abolitionist, and/or reformist visions and projects.