Books to prisoners

One of my favourite tasks when I worked at a bookstore was perhaps one of the most mundane: Preparing books to mail to prisoners. Sending printed material to prisons is a rather exacting and precise task, requiring more fiddling than you might know, and if you don’t do it right, the prison can and will send the material back — that’s assuming it’s not illegally censoring books in the first place. It can be frustrating to send off printed material to someone in prison whether it’s a friend, family member, or someone you want to help out, only to have it kicked back to you weeks or even months later with unhelpful scrawl across the packaging.

Prisoners have a right to access printed materials, whether it’s self-help law books (many of which are stocked in prison libraries, but not always, and access can be restricted), educational literature, or just plain fiction that people enjoy. Not surprisingly, prisoners are like the general population, and many of them enjoy kicking back with a novel; maybe it’s literary fiction or YA or a mystery, maybe a prisoner wants to improve her literacy skills while trapped behind bars, or maybe she’s interested in pursuing a specific educational track when she gets out and she wants to get a jumpstart.

Actually getting books in to prisons, though, is a bit of a challenge. Honestly, they’re treated like bombs about to go off, subject to the same restrictions as all mail going into prison, with some added measures, as though prison staff are genuinely afraid that prisoners will use books to stage a revolt. And maybe they will, because knowledge is power, and power begets the power to be empowered; prisoners, for example, who have access to legal textbooks can prepare arguments against abusive treatment, can report poor living conditions, can self-advocate and look out for each other.

Whether you can’t imagine being without books, or you want to give people a hand in prison, or any number of other things, you may want to send some books along to prisoners, and, fortunately, there are a number of different ways to do it. One route is probably the easiest: Do it through an organisation that specialises in sending books to jails and prisons. Such groups have a list of needs so they can quickly connect donor support with prisoners, and they also have resources like detailed guidelines from various prisons and connections with publishers who provide discounted or free texts. Here’s a starting point of books to prisons programmes around the US.

Your other option is to directly identify prisoners and send books to them. If you have friends and family in prison, you can approach them and see if they’re looking for something specific, or you can work with an organisation that facilitates prison pen pal relationships to build up a rapport with a prisoner. Lots of organisations, like the Prison Correspondence Project, offer connections to people in prisons seeking friends to write back and forth with. As you might imagine for people trapped behind bars, having a friendly voice in the mail now and again makes a huge difference.

In terms of sending books, restrictions vary by facility, and it’s important to get thoroughly acquainted with them beforehand. Here are some common restrictions that may come up:

  • You may not be allowed to send books at all. Yes, you read that correctly. Most prisons require books to be mailed through a bookseller, not an individual. Your local independent bookstore can work with you to send books out, but make sure their staff are aware of the specific requirements for a given prison, because they are all different. Some only allow books from ‘major’ booksellers (for which read: Amazon).
  • No used books. Many prisons require books to be new, lest you go about writing things in the margins or highlighting coded passages that will lead to escape plans or…I’m not entirely sure, honestly.
  • No hardcovers.
  • No additional printed material. No bookmarks, no book bags, no letters, etc. Just a book, and nothing else. Again, this is supposed to prevent the transmission of information (because, of course, we don’t want prisoners to be informed about the world outside).
  • No restricted topics. Usually this includes books about sex, drugs, and violence. If you’re sending magazines, Penthouse probably won’t fly, but Scientific American will.

Ultimately, prison censors are extremely capricious and bizarre. You have no way of determining what a censor will suddenly decide is not okay, and it can vary from staffer to staffer and day to day. If you think this is infuriating and frustrating, imagine being a prisoner who just wants to read a damn book already. Also be aware that it can take a while for books to be processed through the prison system, so don’t expect your book to land on a prison bunk right away.

It’s advisable to contact a prison’s mailroom to get specific directions about mail policies, along with correct addresses to make sure your mail gets where it needs to go. One advantage of working with big booksellers like Amazon is that their staffers are extremely familiar with handling prison mail because they do it in large volumes, and while I normally do not endorse mailing through companies like Amazon, in this case they definitely have the leg up. The sheer volume of material they handle, paired with the brand recognition, means that their books are more likely to get through.

Getting books into prisons can be tough, and sometimes it takes a few tries, but it’s worth it. Prison life can be isolating and it can be hard to find enrichment — sometimes a book makes more of a difference than you know.

Image: Legal and general, Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr