The Freedom of Reading

Librarians help bring books to prisoners

October 31, 2016

A volunteer with Books to Prisons Seattle searches the donated books to fulfill prisoner requests.
A volunteer with Books to Prisons Seattle searches the donated books to fulfill prisoner requests. Photo: Sara Koopai/The Daily of the University of Washington

More than 2 million people in the United States are incarcerated. Most of those 2 million have extremely limited access to something most of us can’t imagine living without: books.

Books-to-prisoners programs across the country are doing their best to address this need by taking book requests from prisoners by mail, then having volunteers match those requests to books that have been donated by the public or purchased with monetary donations. Volunteers also prep books for shipment, assess and sort donations, keep track of the types of books each prison will allow inside, and assist with organizational tasks such as fundraising.

Considering that this position combines reader’s advisory and systems organization skills with a passion for intellectual freedom, perhaps it’s no surprise that many librarians are stepping up to volunteer their time this way.

“[Librarians] come in with all the assets you need, so it’s appreciated on our side,” says Michelle Dillon, program coordinator at Books to Prisoners in Seattle. “It’s like the ultimate reference job. It’s a treasure hunt, almost, to track down what the person [the prisoner] is looking for, and if you can’t, to find a suitable alternative.”

Filling book requests

For Books for Prisoners Seattle, Stephen King is one of the most requested authors.Photo: Sara Koopai/The Daily of the University of Washington
For Books for Prisoners Seattle, Stephen King is one of the most requested authors.Photo: Sara Koopai/The Daily of the University of Washington

The topics inmates like to read about aren’t very different from those of the general population. “People have all sorts of random interests, just like everyone who’s not incarcerated does,” says Erin Wentz, an electronic resources librarian at Boston’s MCPHS University (formerly the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) and a volunteer at Prison Book Program in Quincy, Massachusetts. Though dictionaries, legal information, and GED materials top the list, other requests range from the popular (James Patterson and Stephen King novels) to the obscure (such as a book on insects). Some prisoners request specific books, while others simply ask for particular genres like mystery or fantasy.

“It’s so simple to get involved, but it’s so satisfying on so many levels,” says Chloe Horning, an adjunct faculty librarian at Shoreline Community College and Bellevue Community College and a volunteer at Books to Prisoners Seattle.

The request letters from prisoners appeal to her librarian instincts. “There’s something really satisfying about being able to do reader’s advisory. Someone’s telling you, ‘This is what I like,’ and then you do your best to find that book and send it to them,” Horning says. “That’s what appealed to me so much.”

Intellectual freedom issues

For the justice-minded librarian, sending books into prisons allows you to witness intellectual freedom and censorship issues up close. Most prisons institute some form of book banning, but no two prisons are alike in what they reject. “It’s really frustrating, because there’s no continuity, and nobody has the same restrictions,” says Dillon. Horning adds that prisons are “the frontier where the fight for intellectual freedom is happening right now.”

Volunteers with books-to-prisoners organizations can be part of the solution to these issues, particularly since education can prevent recidivism. “Books can provide education services and a sense of connection to community,” says Dillon.

Fittingly, that sense of community is part why Wentz chooses to volunteer her time this way. “One of the most rewarding parts is knowing that as a group—with so many other people there, all strangers—we come together and make a difference in someone else’s life,” she says. She enjoys the communal commitment to do good, as well as the thank-you letters that come back from prisoners.

Whether it’s finding just the right book, creating a perfect book donation system, or knowing that you’re improving intellectual freedom for prisoners, helping get books into prisons can be a rewarding experience, especially for librarians, and especially when the opportunity to read a grateful note from a prisoner arises. Celia Emmelhainz, an anthropology and qualitative research librarian at University of California Berkeley and a volunteer at Prisoners Literature Project in Berkeley once received a letter that said, “This is the only way to get my mind out of prison.”

Update: Prisoners Literature Project added to sidebar Nov. 2.