Prison Book Program, Part I: Books, Connection, and Community

by Katie Vhay
May 20, 2019

The basement of the First Parish Church in Quincy Center, on a typical Tuesday evening, is quietly bustling with diligent volunteers. It’s the home of the Prison Book Program, a volunteer-run nonprofit that has been mailing free books to people in prison since 1972. Dozens of volunteers are reading letters from prisoners, sorting and shelving donated books, selecting books for individuals, and preparing packages for mailing. The Prison Book Program receives several hundred letters every week, and last year it sent more than 11,000 packages, containing 30,000 books, to people in prison in 44 states. 

A 2017 infographic from the Prison Book Program

A 2017 infographic from the Prison Book Program

The Prison Book Program is the oldest books-to-prisoners group in the US, part of an international movement of prison literacy organizations that includes more than 30 groups in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This year, the Prison Book Program received a grant from the Vireo Foundation to host a Books to Prisoners Conference right here in Boston. For three days in early April, participants attended panels and discussions, and left brimming with enthusiasm and ideas.  

Books are critical to people in prison, offering them a chance to mentally escape from their confinement, learn new skills, and prepare for careers when they are released. Like readers on the outside, they enjoy books on every subject. Books can be tools for self-empowerment. A prisoner named Kenneth sent us a certificate he had earned. He wrote: “I had to fight back tears after reading your letter. Sometimes in here we forget that there are still a lot of wonderful people in the world. You have been with me my entire incarceration and I would like to thank you for your support and inspiration. Because you assisted me, I became motivated to give back. I developed a program to assist inmates, a self-help support group. The program helps men work on some of the problems that brought them to prison. We have found that learning about our problems gives us a better chance of coming home, new and improved. We greatly appreciate knowing that we are not forgotten.”

The human touch often means more than the contents of the package. One prisoner wrote, “It is not the books themselves—it is that you sent them. You took the time to help. With tears in my eyes, I thank you.” The books represent a source of connection and support from outside the prison walls, and an acknowledgement of shared humanity. The Prison Book Program regularly receives touching letters from people describing what this support means to them. 

Another note reads: “For 46 years I have been incarcerated, and for over a decade your program has nourished me with books that keep the prison from entering my mind. Those who sponsor your program cannot begin to grasp the depth of their contribution. Books not only take away ignorance, but they furnish a vast array of thoughts. And thoughts cannot be conquered by bars and walls and fences.”

And yet another reads: “The books are beacons of truth that dispel the darkness of despair. Please keep that light burning bright. Please keep the books beaming in.”

The sense of community and connection is one reason why volunteers keep coming back. When asked why he volunteers, Mike Wood said, “Being able to reach out and let a caged human know someone cares enough about them to read their letter, give them the books they want, and help someone help themselves develop a positive future.”

Many volunteers have a few memorable stories that stick with them. There was the man who laid out a detailed plan to start his own goat farm in Oregon. PBP had just received a box of farmer’s almanacs, so the future farmer received one, plus books on canning vegetables and caring for livestock. Another letter-writer had spent 17 years in solitary confinement and had taught himself the law to keep his sanity. One man wrote that he’d dropped out of school at age 12 and never learned to multiply or divide. Mike remembered “a two-page letter written by a regular guy” who described his family life and regrets. Towards the end of the letter, the man wrote, ‘I'm on death row and could really use these books.’” Mike continued: “This shook me to my core and I will never forget it. My eyes well up every time I recall it.”

People in prison often don’t have access to the internet, so they depend on reference books like dictionaries, thesauri, and almanacs. 25% of letters ask for a dictionary. Volunteer Lee Collins explained, “Dictionaries are definitely the most popular, and one reason folks want them is because the main way they stay in touch with loved ones is by writing letters, and they don’t want to embarrass themselves by misspelling words.”

Mike Wood listed other popular requests: “Self-help, recovery from trauma, legal guides, mysteries, fantasy, trade skills, religion, crossword puzzles, and coloring books.” The Prison Book Program depends on book donations from people in the community. It also has two online wish lists: on Amazon and at a local bookstore, Wellesley Books. Donors can purchase books in popular categories that will be mailed to prisoners who ask for them. The Amazon wish list also features “special requests,” more unusual books that are for a specific person. 

Volunteers at work in the book room

Volunteers at work in the book room

The experience of sending books can be eye-opening to volunteers, especially if they haven’t had much prior contact with the criminal justice system. Emma Lathan, PBP board President and coordinator of volunteers, reflected, “Sending books to prisoners is a part of larger and more complex issues having to do with literacy and access to education. Some people can take for granted their access to a decent education and to resources such as a well-curated library and the internet. My learning around these issues is continuous.”

The Prison Book Program is open twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and one Saturday each month. It hosts individual volunteers, families, and a wide variety of groups—high school and college clubs, work colleagues, and religious organizations, ranging from Boston’s Young Muslims Engaging (BYME) to a dedicated group of Sisters of Notre Dame. Boston Cares and One Brick Boston, nonprofits that provide opportunities for volunteering and socializing, also regularly send teams.

Emma added, “It’s been great to share this work with different groups that wish to volunteer with the program. They have brought different perspectives and resources that assist us. It’s also gratifying to know that a small group of concerned people have made such a huge and lasting impact on the lives of others.”

Want to learn more about the Prison Book System, volunteer, or donate? Visit their website, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter. Donate books at either the Wellesley Books site, or Amazon. Look for Part II of our Prison Book Program feature soon.

Katie Vhay is an avid reader, advocate, and storyteller. She’s been the social media editor and part of the Prison Book Program Core team since 2016. She loves attending book events, knitting, baking, and dismantling systems of oppression.