The Prison Literature Project has been sending free books to prisoners all over the country since the 1980s. We are an all-volunteer organization and most of our books are donated. We do buy some popular items like dictionaries, Spanish-English dictionaries and how-to-draw books. We do not send out racist, sexist, homophobic or escape literature (thriller, romance, Westerns etc.).
Our goals are threefold:
1) To provide prisoners with the education most of them did not receive. Almost everyone in prison is poor and most have had only a spotty education. Many were illiterate before prison and have used the time to teach themselves to read.
2) To help them maintain their sanity by giving them something to do with their minds. Many prisoners spend long periods in solitary confinement and lots of prisons are on almost permanent lockdown.
3) To educate young people about the prison industrial complex. We have many groups of high school students who do their community service with us. By reading prisoners’ letters, they have a direct experience with incarceration.
For many years, we have been receiving more letters than we can handle: around 1,000-1,500 every month. We are always several months behind in filling requests. But, unfortunately, now we have run out of money. Our expenses are small: postage, mailing supplies, rent, post office box and the purchase of books. We need about $1,500 every month.
Projects like ours are especially important now as most prison programs have been eliminated and the prison libraries that still exist only carry books like westerns and romance. Because most prisoners have had little or no education and have no way to legally earn a living when they get released, prison becomes a revolving door for them. We want to change that cycle.
Amazingly enough, we have to jump through a lot of hoops to get books into prisons. And if we don’t follow all the rules and regulations, the guards destroy the books. Some of these rules are very arbitrary. For example, many prisons won’t accept hard cover books because they believe that prisoners will make weapons out of the covers.
The prisoners who are our clients are sophisticated readers. They read philosophy, history and anthropology. They study the Black Panthers and foreign languages. There is a hunger for knowledge. And so many of them are desperate to find a way to support themselves when they get out.
Some of the requests are heartbreaking. They know that they won’t be able to get a job on the outside with their conviction records, so they grasp at straws: They want to learn about bee keeping, homesteading or investing in the stock market. Many of them also use their time to explore spirituality and so we get a lot of requests for books on Buddhism, Wicca and Islam.
Right now we are forced to discard most of the letters we receive and have had to cancel all of our volunteer hours. We have enough money to send out only about 250-300 book packages a month. Can you help us help prisoners? For $25, we can send about eight packages. But what we really need are volunteers who can do fundraising. We have nonprofit status.
You can make donations online at www.prisonersliteratureproject.com or send them to Prison Literature Project, P.O. Box 1253, Berkeley, CA 94701. For more information, please call Gina: (510) 749-4160.