Books Behind Bars

Reading material in prisons is a catch as catch can affair. Many prisons have libraries with some books, including books for legal research and education, along with a mixture of whatever fiction and other materials the library has managed to acquire through donations and grants. Prison libraries tend to be poorly funded and their resources are extremely limited. Consequently, some inmates ask family and friends to send books so they have something to read, whether it’s some cheesy mysteries to while away the hours or a school book for an inmate who is seeking an education behind bars.

For those who have not tried to send books to the prison system, this may seem like a relatively easy affair; pick up some books, slap them in a package, and be done with it. The truth is actually much more complicated. A series of byzantine prison regulations are set up to foul you at every step, making it extremely difficult to ensure that anything you send will actually end up in the hands of an inmate. Books and reading material are not considered a right, and the prison system is under no legal obligation to guarantee them, which means it can create as many barriers as it likes.

Starting with where, exactly, you are going to send those books. Prisoners are moved occasionally, sometimes without notice or warning. While they can be tracked through the prison system by prisoner number (which must be on all mail and packages addressed to an inmate), that doesn’t mean that a prison will forward books to a prisoner at a new location. Books sent to an old address may be returned, and the process will have to start all over again, with finding the right direction for the address, and hoping that the prisoner will not move again before the package arrives.

State by state regulations vary, but, generally, you are not allowed to send books. Individuals cannot send reading material directly to prisoners. It must be sent through a retailer or directly from the publisher. If you have written material you want to send that is not bound in book form, you can attempt to send it, and it might get through, but there is no guarantee. And if the prison decides to reject it, it will be shipped back to you at the expense of the prisoner, often with a handling fee to go along with it. Keep in mind that prisoners have limited funds; they rely on money sent from the outside and the very limited earnings from prison ‘work’ programmes, if they are available.

The books must also be new. Prisons do not accept worn books, books that are written in, and books that appear to conceal objects of any kind. This includes things like handmade art books that are not standardized; a mail inspector may pass the book, determining that it doesn’t pose a risk, or may not, and you have no control over which will happen. A series of books might get through just fine, and then another inspector might decide to get persnickety, and you’re back to square one.

Speaking of inspections, prisons have them. All incoming mail and packages receive a thorough rummaging before being allowed into the prison. Anything that might be personal, irreplaceable, or valuable should not be sent to a prison, because it might not be allowed through, it might not be sent back, and you might not find out what happened to it, either. These inspections can also pose a significant safety risk; if you are sending books on queer politics to a prisoner, for example, it might be assumed that the prisoner is queer, and this would expose that person to the potential for violence. Likewise with books on health conditions, or on any marginalised identity that may not be readily obvious.

Prisons also generally enforce ‘moral standards’ on the content they allow in. Books may be rejected on the grounds that they are not appropriate prison reading, and these standards are often moving goalposts. Definitions of explicit content, for example, are quite variable, and consequently one inspector might pass a book that another would not. Books on things like prison abolition, human rights, revolution, class war? Unlikely to make it into a prison because they could be considered inflammatory material. Prisons claim this is necessary for safety, but it’s also a very neat tool for social control, to prevent prisoners from accessing information they might find valuable.

To send books to a specific prisoner, you need to contact a bookstore, buy new books, and pay the shipping fee. The bookstore must include the sales slip and may need to follow other packaging requirements. These can vary by state and also by prison, making it critical to carefully look up the regulations and make sure the bookstore follows them to the letter. If they do not, the books will come back around to you, again at the prisoner’s expense. Some bookstores are actually very used to handling books for prisoners and have a high success rate in terms of getting books accepted, while others do not, and may charge extra or be reluctant to fill the order. It can help to connect with other people who have friends and family at a prison to see which bookstores they use, to determine which would be the best choice.

The alternative is to support a prison book programme that sends books to prisoners with assistance from members of the public; here’s a listing of such programmes in North America. Some prisoners can’t get books through friends and family because of isolation, costs, or other issues. For them, such organizations may be their only resource, and they matter:

Dear People: Thank You. Little occurs that reminds me I am a member of a cognitive, emotional species: your package did. Not much going on in the Texas Department of Corrections, so a good read is a primo event. Thank you for reminding me that I’m human and other humans care! (Jimmy, Texas)