I am sixteen years old and a volunteer with Books to Prisoners. I am a voracious reader and sincerely believe in the power of books to cultivate joy, to comfort, to educate, and to foster empathy. Access to books in prisons is limited, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic; BTP is serving a demonstrated need in a community that is so frequently shunned and forgotten by our society. Never before have I experienced such fulfillment while volunteering, knowing that I am helping to fill this need with something I love so much. It is a truly gratifying experience.
At Books to Prisoners, incarcerated individuals write us letters requesting reading materials. The volunteers take those requests and fulfill them from the donated materials available. What we provide is more than just books, though. It's knowledge, dignity, communication and access to the world.
I read a letter recently in which the man said he has been in prison since 1992. That was the year I was born. He has spent my entire existence locked up. I don't understand that and it breaks my heart. However, I was able to send him books, remind him that people care about him, and make his time in prison (while a pandemic is going on) a little more manageable. That is why this work is so important.
Thank you, Books to Prisoners.
As a child, I grew up with bed-time stories. Even as an adult, time for reading almost always precedes lights out. Books can transport and transform. Partially through reading I have gained a deeper understanding of our legal system, who is incarcerated, and the extraordinary challenges of living in prison. Books to Prisoners joins my passion for reading with my compassion for those who are incarcerated. When I read a letter from a prisoner requesting a book, I feel a connection with that prisoner as I realize we share something in common. We may not be so different after all. And this awareness is something good and profound.
My wife was volunteering at Books to Prisoners six years ago and she invited me to go with her one Thursday evening. I discovered they had a day shift on Wednesdays. I went the following Wednesday, was trained in answering letters by the amazing Pat Walker, who would become my dear friend, and I have been going every Wednesday since, with the occasional absence, until the pandemic came along and closed down the Wednesday shift. I am now going back on Wednesdays as part of a three person bubble and hope that in the not too distant future I will be reunited with what was a wonderful group of volunteers on Wednesdays.
It was the letters from the prisoners that drew me in. They were asking for books to educate themselves, to learn how to write, how to make things, how to draw, to learn computer languages, to become plumbers or electricians, to learn foreign languages. They wanted books to enable them to live a better life once they were released. They also, of course, wanted thrillers and westerns and fantasy books. The hard part at Books to Prisoners is, so often, not having the books the inmate wants and struggling to find a book that might help. Books to Prisoners is a great resource for the incarcerated and has an amazingly committed group of volunteers.
As far as I'm concerned, mass incarceration is our greatest national scandal. (And there is plenty of competition.) Prisoners may be "necessary" for public safety reasons and even because people can change when met with consequences. But we've collectively dropped the ball on the most important function of a legal system--rehabilitation. As I watch vulture capitalists like Tom Gores reap profits off of families of incarcerated people, I started to look for small ways that I could fight back. Through a from from Inside Books in Austin, I learned of Books to Prisonsers, and once I looked into the org and met a couple of its organizers, I was hooked.
I don't care what you did. You are still a human being. Knowledge is power. We'll see most of these people on the inside again. I want them to emerge better, wiser, more empowered to make some changes. Books to Prisoners is my small way of advocating for that.
(Note: I even asked a BTP worker to speak to my high school students in Bolivia. See the attached.)
BTP is a life line for prisoners, especially right now during the pandemic. We have heard from so many prisoners that the resources we send send are keeping them sane. I cannot imagine being in lock down 23 of 24 hours a day. They are so grateful to read, learn, adventure, and escape through literature. The narratives we read shape our understanding of the world and help us make sense of our experiences and the experiences of those around us. Books and stories have the unique ability to impart wisdom, build empathy, teach skills and tools without the in person experience. Books helps us process what we think and feel, and help us formulate a plan to begin coping with trauma by providing tangible evidence that others have faced the same challenges we survived. Stories equal hope, resilience, and medicine that have the power to heal.
My favorite part of volunteering is finding the PERFECT Book that matches the request! It makes me so happy to think about the person opening the package and discovering that someone they don't know them cares about them.
Prison libraries (if there is even one are woefully short of inventory.) Family members (my father, brother, sisters) have run programs in prisons as volunteers as have friends. I don’t have the special skill sets they have but can donate to Books to Prisoners and make it possible for some to have the books they need/want as well as encourage others to do the same. As Emily Dickinson said ‘There is no frigate like a book.’
Books to Prisoners does an outstanding job and I am proud and grateful to support them!
I've worked with this organization for 8 years, and it has been one of the best experiences of my life. Books to Prisoners is made up of a small group of passionate, humble, dedicated people who want to provide access to reading materials for people who are incarcerated and they manage to help more than 10,000 people every year with only one staff person.
I encourage everyone who is interested in learning about the impact of incarceration and providing solidarity with incarcerated people to volunteer some time with this wonderful organization. Help to answer a few of the thousands of letters that Books to Prisoners receives each year; you may walk away with a new perspective and as much of a passion for advocating for this cause as those experiences developed in me.
Please also consider a donation to help make this work possible: Books to Prisoners is a scrappy, grassroots organization and every dollar makes a huge difference. Just $25 will provide packages of books to 6 more people.
If it hasn't been made clear already, to me, this is a genuinely great nonprofit and it deserves so much more recognition and support from the community for its impact.
I started volunteering at BTP in 2019, and it is an experience I quickly grew to love. The staff is lovely and working on volunteer nights (back when we could gather in large groups!) was always a pleasure. Now we are maintaining social distance, so the work is less more remote and less social.. but it is more necessary than ever.
The process is straightforward: prisoners write in requesting books and volunteers sort through a donated library of titles to try and fulfill their request. There is no direct contact between volunteers and the recipients, everything is handled through the organization.
The work is rewarding and heartbreaking. I have read letters from fathers and sons incarcerated together, from teenagers locked up as adults, from adults who clearly never had a chance to go to school. There are letters from people trying to start book clubs or grow gardens, and from people who want to know how to start their own businesses because they know they won't be able to get a job at a big company when they are out.
Before reading about this organization I did not know anything about what the incarcerated face in their daily lives. I know it is naïve, but I had imagined prison life would be boring, but a great opportunity to get in a lot of reading. It turns out that prisons across the nation regularly make it difficult for their inmates to get their hands on any reading material at all. Prison libraries are frequently closed at the best of times and many are completely inaccessible during the pandemic.
This makes the work of BTP more important than ever. Reading has always been an escape and an education for me. This organization can provide those things to people who need those more than anyone else, and it might even help them to have a better life.