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‘It’s basic human dignity’: Groups work to get books to incarcerated people

Grassroots organizations across the country battle prison restrictions and pandemic struggles to send books to incarcerated people.
An inmate reads a book at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., on Jan. 14, 2009.
An inmate reads a book at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., on Jan. 14, 2009.Rich Pedroncelli / AP File

Zachery, 49, spent 19 years in prison in California, but his incarceration would have been even longer if it weren’t for a single book.

Zachery, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, was told that if he completed his associate degree while incarcerated, he could get at least six months cut from his sentence. The only thing standing between him and the completion was a single sociology book he needed to pass his final class. 

“The prison didn’t have it. Nobody at the prison had it. And I didn’t have the resources to buy a $200 textbook,” Zachery said. “Abolition Apostles was willing to rent the book for me, and that allowed me to finish my sociology degree. I was so appreciative. It meant a lot to me.”

Abolition Apostles is a faith-based organization in New Orleans that supports incarcerated people through everything from providing pen pals to donating to commissary costs. Zachery said he had been exchanging letters with his pen pal, a member of the group, for at least a year, and she sprang into action when she learned he needed the textbook. 

He was released from Avenal State Prison early last year with at least two years cut from his final sentence thanks to the degree and other programs. As he works to build a new life, Zachery said he hopes more people will come to understand the power of sending books to incarcerated people.

“It is possible for something as simple as a book to completely change a person’s perspective and set them on a different course of life,” he said.

Abolition Apostles is one of many grassroots organizations across the country that support and advocate for incarcerated people by sending books to prisons. In Los Angeles, rapper Noname’s Radical Hood Library has sent thousands of books to incarcerated members of the group’s book club. In Austin, Texas, the Inside Books Project sends tens of thousands of donated books to the state's prisons each year. The New York chapter of Books Through Bars sends about 200 packages of books each week to people incarcerated in the state, and several other organizations in the country do similar work.

Grassroots organizers say central to their mission to abolish prisons is to also build relationships with incarcerated people through book-giving programs. 

“We get letters from someone who’s incarcerated and sometimes they’ll say, ‘I’m going crazy. Send me anything!’” Daniel Schaffer, a collective member of NYC Books Through Bars, said. “It’s very much a mental health issue. Even just getting a piece of mail, a package, can be a highlight of your day, your week, your month.”

These efforts are still no easy feat, they say. Book censorship in the country’s prisons represents “the largest book ban policy in the United States,” according to a report from PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression. 

In Illinois in 2019, the Danville Correctional Center removed from the prison’s library hundreds of titles that officials deemed “racially motivated,” according to Illinois Newsroom.

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections briefly decided to halt book-donation programs and mail-order books and publications, citing security concerns, but reversed the decision in a matter of months due to backlash from the public. 

“Everyone who got involved called Gov. [Tom] Wolf, wrote letters, shared the story on social media — it was really public pressure, we believe, that led to the DOC updating their policy,” Jodi Lincoln, an organizer with the Pittsburgh book-donation program Book ‘Em, told The Philadelphia Inquirer then.

Although the department reversed the restriction, officials announced an added barrier: Books would be sent to a security processing center before prison mailrooms.

That same year, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision wanted to implement a policy that would have only allowed packaged books from a handful of designated vendors — but protests prompted then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend the program before it could begin. 

Prison systems in Connecticut, Alabama, Mississippi and other states have similar restrictions in place. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has banned thousands of books, a decision that has concerned advocates for years.

Meanwhile, prison libraries are usually poorly stocked, and access to them is often limited. Organizers say such restrictions both make their efforts difficult and highlight their importance.

“I believe a lot of those rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Preventing access to information in any form is extremely harmful,” Paul Tardie, a collective member of the Inside Books Project, said. “It’s also about personal opinions and views. … It allows the corrections officers and wardens to control the population in ways that benefit them more than focusing on the growth of people that are locked up.”

The benefits of reading while incarcerated are well documented, such as promoting rehabilitation, combating high illiteracy rates in prison populations — 3 out of 5 people in U.S. prisons can’t read — and simply helping people cope with harsh prison life. Book-donation programs are credited with helping provide hope and connection with the outside world. Studies show that reading and education programs reduce recidivism, and connection with family while incarcerated promotes health adjustment after a person is released. Experts have said reading combats feelings of isolation and alienation, and prison reading groups can even promote empathy. 

“Having access to books, education and self-improvement is a piece of basic human dignity,” David Brazil of Abolition Apostles said. “In many prisons, people don’t have adequate libraries, or any libraries, so we’re meeting needs that are absent. As a pastor, this work is a way of loving my neighbor as myself.”

Noname’s popular book club prioritizes sending radical books by Black, Indigenous and other people of color to its incarcerated book club members.

“We understand that when a loved one is arrested or sent to jail the ripple effects are felt across the entire community,” the book club’s website read. The group even publishes book reviews by incarcerated people and holds that to support incarcerated people is to support communities.

Meanwhile, there are groups like Survived & Punished New York, which advocates for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence and publishes poetry by incarcerated people in its quarterly newsletter, Free: Survivors.

Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t easy for organizations to get packages of books to incarcerated people. Now, with dwindling volunteer numbers, many of the groups are working harder than ever to meet the growing need in prisons across the country. Tardie said just eight volunteers work with the Inside Books Project to fill 2,000 book requests a month. In New York, Schaffer said just five people work with Books Through Bars to collect book donations and send the packages to prisons in the state.

Many of these book programs rely on donations and sometimes purchase titles from bookshops and presses to fill their book inventory and meet incarcerated people’s needs. Abolition Apostles, which sends books on a smaller scale, at least 15 per month, has partnered with Marcus Books, one of the country’s oldest Black-owned bookstores, to fulfill orders. 

These efforts continue a long tradition. Black-owned bookstores, grassroots organizations and book-donation programs have prioritized sending books into U.S. prisons for decades. 

“With books, it’s not just a tool for useful information. It really helps get people outside of those walls,” Tardie said. “That has a major impact on the well-being of people.”

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