A prison book program requires indoor space for both storage and packing. At a bare minimum, you will need a place the size of a garage to start. You will also need lots of shelves of whatever type you can find. Books stacked vertically soon become amorphous piles of chaos. Cinder blocks and boards are the old standby for dirt cheap shelving. Folding tables can be used for working surfaces and then stored if the space is multipurpose.
Some of the places to investigate for usable space are churches, bookstores, community centers, libraries, schools, and warehouses. When you call potential spaces, explain what you are setting out to do and the type of space you need. Ideally they will be interested not only in providing the space, but also inviting people to get involved in the project. Also check with any property owners you know who may have vacant areas in their buildings.
Your first location does not have to be permanent. Since a book mailing operation requires no major structural remodeling, or special electrical or plumbing modifications, it is relatively inexpensive to move out of one spot and into another one. Security is a minimal concern as nearly nothing you need has any direct cash value.
Bear in mind that the space needs to be accessible by many people sometimes at odd hours. An area in a private residence is not well suited to this set up unless it has its own entrance. Beware of damp, stuffy basements as books can mildew, particularly in the summertime. Ventilation is a consideration in any damp space or climate. Also avoid any space that floods as this ruins any books stored directly on the floor. When considering attics the number of steps and type of stairs is a concern. Remember you will be bringing thousands of books into your space and carrying hundreds of packages out of it. This is not an insurmountable problem, but worth evaluating. Finding a site that is accessible to all bodies is of course ideal.
Running water and a refrigerator are not required in the room or rooms you set up in. Access to a bathroom is handy. It can be down a hallway or at the other end of a warehouse. Trying to get by using a bedroom or living room is not recommended. Incoming books take on a life of their own.
Like kudzu on an open hillside, piles and boxes of books will accumulate and cover every desk, shelf, cabinet, table, chair and anything else with a flat surface including the floor.
With an adequate budget it’s possible to lease a space, but paying rent is generally too large a burden for a book program just getting started. While a location need not be permanent you can avoid the complications of address changes by conducting all your correspondence from a post office box.
B. Letters from Prisoners
How do prisoners find out you exist? You’re providing a free service that’s much in demand, so advertising tends to take care of itself.
Once the word is out on the prison grapevine you’ll be flooded with requests. Probably the easiest way to start is by contacting an existing prison book program that serves prisons in your geographic area and ask them to pass on some of their requests. If you do this, be sure to tell the prisoners how you received their request so they won’t feel like the other program forgot about them. If you don’t think you can fill the requests as quickly as the other program would fill them, let them know.
If you are anxious to get the floodgates roaring notify other prison book programs of your existence and tell them to pass the word along. Make sure you have a large mailbox!
There are many ways to get books for free. It is not difficult to build up a network of supply lines and you may end up with more books than you have the resources to sort, store or send. At that point your concern will be narrowing your selection to what you need the most. The good news is that you can sell overstock to pay for more postage. There are at least two types of books you may end up purchasing: dictionaries and blank journals or composition books, so it’s worth finding cheap sources or donors to fund them.
- Used bookstores- Build a friendly relationship with the used book stores in your area. Besides letting you cart off their overstocks, they can refer other groups or individuals who have books to your organization. Keep an eye out for “bag days” or other sales.
- Libraries- Public libraries often clear out their unpopular titles. Once they are familiar with your work, they may give you first pick at the books they are liquidating. Bear in mind that the majority of a library’s stock is hardback, which cannot be sent to some prisons. Even if a prison will accept hardbacks you have to consider whether the increased postage costs are worth it. However, do not shun all hardbacks, you may be able to sell them or trade them for books that would be more useful.
- Publishers- Contact small and/or alternative publishers, particularly ones in your area. Books from a publisher’s retail inventory stock that show even slight damage cannot be sold as brand new. Because the laws of gravity apply to the print trade as equally as to the rest of us, publishers are constantly accumulating damaged books and will often donate them to you on an ongoing basis. Besides damaged inventory publishers have “remaindered” stock. When more copies of a title are printed than the retail market demands, eventually the excess is remaindered at a reduced cost. To ensure that they are not then resold by a third party at full price, the front cover is usually all or partially cut off. Some prisons do not accept remaindered books, but in most prisons they are not a problem.
- People Involved in Journalism – Literary critics, college professors, and editors are bombarded by publishers with advance copies, also called “review copies” of new books, and may be glad to give a large proportion of them to you.
- Donations from Individuals and Groups- By putting out the word that you accept donated books in order to send them to prisoners, you will be contacted by individuals and groups eager to give you books. It is easier to facilitate accepting these donations if you have access to some type of vehicle. However, this is not a requirement, and you can simply tell interested parties that they need to drop off their donations at a specified time and place.
- Schools – Schools of all types can be a valuable source of books. Professors, teachers and students of community colleges, universities, middle schools and high schools will often coordinate book drives. College students may donate textbooks that they are not able to sell back to their campus bookstore. Sometimes middle schools and high schools will donate textbooks that they will no longer use in the classroom.
- Drop Off Boxes – Contact local libraries, religious groups and activist organizations to see if you can set up a donation box in their meeting space. Try to find one or two centrally located and public spaces at which book donations can be dropped off at anytime.
Book Banks – Your town might operate something like Philadelphia’s Book Bank. The Book Bank is open several days a week, to teachers and representatives of community organizations. It is a valuable source of high school level textbooks.
Types of Books
Most letters from prisoners request specific genres or titles of books, so it is advisable to use some system to sort and categorize the books you have. However, unlike a library, your stock is always changing, so the benefit of devising a complex cataloging system has diminishing returns. We separate the books into broad categories or genres. Even alphabetizing books within a section isn’t generally worth the bother. It takes far too much time and with the high turnover of books coming and going, you’ll have enough to do just keeping your inventory separated into subject categories. The Prison Books Collective currently uses these categories:
- African American Fiction
- African American Non-Fiction
- Comic Books
- Feminism/Women’s Studies
- Foreign Language
- General Fiction/Novels
- Health/Women’s Health
- History, US and World
- Latin American Fiction
- Latin American Studies
- LGBTQ Studies
- Math and Science
- Popular Fiction (Pulp Fiction/Thrillers/Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Etc.)
- Religion, Spirituality, UFOs, Occult (and all things improvable)
- Spanish (books in Spanish)
- True Crime (no glorified sexual violence stuff)
A few notes based on our experiences:
Dictionaries! Take in every dictionary you can get your hands on-from big fat unabridged volumes to slim little grade school paperbacks. Our all time most requested book is the dictionary, and unless you can find a good regular source locally, you may have a chronic shortage of them, so stock up whenever the opportunity presents itself.
We send “journal” or blank composition books on request. This is another category of book you may need to purchase or find a designated donor if you decide to provide them.
The popular fiction/pulp fiction category is for current name authors such as John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, etc. This stuff makes the rounds inside prisons and is as widely enjoyed there as on the outside. You will get specific requests by title for many of these books. The reason for making popular fiction a separate category from general fiction/novels/literature is because there’s a higher turnover and it makes it easier to find out if that one last Dean Koontz is still around without poking through all the Faulkner, Allende, Vonnegut, and Doctorow on the shelves. We avoid sending in books from the “serial killer” genre such as the Silence of the Lambs books or true crime books that focus on murdering women or other glorified sexual violence. We usually have an entire shelf designated for Fantasy and Science Fiction with high turnover.
Westerns are the cowboy themed novels by Louis L’Amor and others. These are separated from Fiction/Novels because prisoners often specifically request Westerns. Just like we vet for glorified violence against women, we vet for glorified slaughter of indigenous peoples, too.
There is no category for pornography, because depictions of nudity are pretty strictly forbidden by prisons. That said, we generally leave most of the censorship to the prisons’ own censors and try to keep self-censorship to a minimum. We’ve been truly surprised by what’s been approved over the years, whether it’s hundreds of copies of Black Power Revolt, histories of gang truce organizing, or thousands of specifically anarchist books, newspapers, and zines. It doesn’t hurt to have a friendly lawyer or your local ACLU chapter write the occasional letter on your behalf when things get banned that shouldn’t be. We believe if we’re not sending in books that help prisoners understand and challenge their conditions then we’re wasting our time and resources.
Organize your shelving based on the level of popularity of the topic area. If your space consists of two or more floors, you will want to shelve commonly requested items such as dictionaries and African American Studies on the main floor.
You may need to reserve a portion of your space for large donations of single titles that cannot be shelved at one time. Such donations would include many copies of a single title donated by a publisher, or multiple boxes of a textbook donated by a school. One or two individuals can assume responsibility for regularly re-stocking the shelves with these books.
Once you are established, you will receive more book donations than you can use. You might want to coordinate book shipments to county jail facilities and half-way houses. You might also trade books for store credit at used bookstores or host yard sale style book sales and make hundred of dollars for postage.
We don’t send in Bibles or Korans, instead we list the addresses of organizations that provide them in our Resource Guide (see Appendix II). This helps us conserve resources and concentrate on social justice work.
In addition to books, we also make available thousands of “zines,” small booklets on contemporary political subjects like race, gender, direct action, anarchism, popular history, and anti-prison struggles.
It’s hard to get lots of radical books donated, so we use zines as a way to bridge the gap between supply and demand. As we are able to provide multiple copies of these, prisoners are able to form study groups and themselves engage other prisoners in these topics. Study groups like these have popped up in a number of prisons throughout the South. Ideally, these groups can be a catalyst for prisoner organizing on the inside, as well as function as a form of dialogue between radicals on both sides of the prison walls. We include a zine catalog in each package sent. It’s been cool to see someone who firsts writes us for pulp fiction like Koontz or Grisham and then over the years ends up asking for Black Power environmentalist, and anarchist zines. You can see our Zine Catalog in Apendix II.
These days to keep up with our growing demand for zines and legal primers we print everything in house using a risograph. Get in touch with us if you would like tips on how to get your group set up with one.
To keep your program operating smoothly you need a core group of dedicated individuals who can put a fair amount of time into the project and a good flow of casual help whose involvement is on a more short term or occasional basis.
The Prison Books Collective consists of a core collective of 4-10 people in addition to a constantly changing volunteer pool. Some volunteers will want to help out only once while others will want to pack books several times each month. The collective participates in book distribution, decision-making and also assumes responsibility for all administrative tasks including fundraising. One or two people, no matter how dedicated they may be, can become overwhelmed with the workload, so it’s important to find people to assist with the variety of tasks.
Good sources for volunteers are progressive and radical political activist groups, progressive churches, service organizations, book clubs and schools. We’ve also had really good luck putting up flyers around town asking for volunteers; as well as putting ads for volunteers in the event and classifieds sections of newspapers and online sites. We’ve found that volunteer retention is highest when the group designates a collective member to welcome and orient new volunteers as they arrive. That member can collect volunteer contact information or you can have a sign in book. You may want to have an announcement listserv that occasionally lets people know about special packing opportunities, book sales or events.
You may be contacted by a former prisoner who received books from you or a similar organization while they were incarcerated. This is an excellent opportunity to get feedback on your efforts, allow someone to show their gratitude, and add another volunteer with an especially valuable perspective to your efforts.
F. Publisher/Bookstore Affiliation
Affiliation with a publisher or bookstore is a crucial component of a prison book program. The majority of prisons place restrictions on books being sent to prisoners by individuals.
However prisoners are generally allowed to receive books that are sent directly from a book store or publisher. You meet this condition by sending your books on behalf of the entity with which you have an association. Most prisons aren’t too picky about this requirement. You don’t have to be legally incorporated with the publisher/book store nor do you need to be a paid employee. You do need to have labels or an address stamp made that include this publisher or bookstore as part of the address; otherwise the books will not be received by the prisons. (For example: Books to Prisoners Project Kalamazoo, ABC Publishing, 111 Lightheart Lane, Kalamazoo MI 99999.)
G. Packing Materials
To send books through the mail, you need some sort of package, bag or envelopes.
There are many types of bubble sheet lined envelopes and padded book mailers that are well suited for mailing books. However, a number of prisons will not accept packages sent in envelopes of this type. For years we used grocery bags and packing tape and wrapped our packages like presents. We found though that some new volunteers were discouraged because they had a difficult time wrapping the books. Since then we’ve switched to manila envelopes that can be bought in bulk and it’s only an extra four to six cents per package.
You will also need tape, address labels or an address stamp. The best tape to use is 2- inch clear plastic packaging tape. Get it donated by the case if possible. The address labels or stamp need to have your organization’s full return address, which includes the name of your affiliate publisher or bookstore. Generally speaking the postal clerk will stamp the words media mail on each of your packages, but some groups like to make their own media mail stamp to save time at the post office.
An established prison book program will spend most of its money on postage. Most packages cost over three dollars to send, which adds up quickly.
You may get a few donations of stamps from prisoners, yet it won’t make much of a dent in the total. Minimum wage laws don’t apply to prison labor, and jobs for prisoners are about half a notch above slave labor.
A first class stamp is the equivalent of the hourly wage for a typical prisoner, so any contribution is a testament to how much they appreciate your efforts.
Contact your local post office or consult the USPS web site to receive media mail rates.