The Process

The step by step procedure that follows is Books Through Bars operations plan. Your operations may vary and will probably change with time as you grow. The first two steps, reading and sorting of letters, occurs before the actual packing. All the other steps are carried out during a packing session with the exception of transportation to the post office which may not take place until a few days later. We have found that a pleasant way to accomplish packing is to set up packing sessions as cafe style events held on a regular basis. Having refreshments and listening to music makes for an enjoyable and productive working environment.

A. Sorting Letters

Books Through Bars advises new programs to open letters within a day to a week of receiving them. You should do this even when your program is three or more months behind in filling requests (a situation common to most prison book programs). We recommend this for several reasons.

First, a small but significant portion of the letters you receive will be requests for information about how your project operates. These requests can be filled quickly by the person opening the mail using a form letter. Similarly, prisoners may be requesting resource lists or zine catalogs that you can send to them without delay. Or they may be requesting a service that you cannot provide but you can refer them to another group. In addition, their letter might include information of a time sensitive nature, such as an approval form that must be sent with a package of books within thirty days or information on current struggles inside the prison that you can publicize.

Also, opening requests months before filling them provides your program with an opportunity to solicit or otherwise look for books on the more obscure topics that are requested or make decisions about what to cull or sell.

In your first few months you may get a reasonable number of requests that can be answered promptly with little difficulty. In time, the volume of mail will increase until the only manageable way to deal with it all is to divide it into several categories.

B. Reading and Responding to Letters

When letters are first opened and read, those that are from prisoners exchanging regular correspondence with any of our staff are set aside for the addressee. Just make sure book requests are still filled if the addressee is no longer packing books.

Letters range from epic life stories to short notes along the lines of “I heard about your program. I have no money please send me some books, I’ll take any type you have.” Most letters tend to be fairly short and to the point. Some may be funny, insightful or thought provoking in unusual ways. You‘ll find an amazing range of handwriting styles. Some letters may contain artwork or poetry. Save them. You can compile a newsletter of prisoners’ art and writing and then distribute it to both sides of the wall. When you have a good collection you can also display them at fundraising events or use them in other creative ways for bringing awareness to prison issues.

We generally write at least a three sentence letter to include with what we are sending as part of the required “invoice”. For us making a human connection is an important part of the work we do. Here’s an example of a letter you can write no matter how short the letter is:

Hi Ralph,
 Thanks for your letter. I’m sending you Good Omens, The Handmaid’s Tale, and World Behind Bars.
I hope you enjoy them.
 Take Care,
 Stay Up,
 Ani Maus

If someone writes more we may write more, but we write at least this much.

C. Selecting Books

Sometimes prisoners will request specific titles or writers. Individual volunteer’s knowledge of authors in specific subject areas will come in handy. If you don’t have exactly what they want, select something close or similar. If you’ve never heard of what they want and haven’t a clue what genre it is the internet will probably hold the answer.

D. Checking Restrictions

Prisons often have different regulations. With regard to mail restrictions and regulations each prison sets its own policy. From the point of view of a prison book program, there is little rhyme or reason to the varying restrictions, and no discernible patterns geographically. To further complicate matters, there are units within a prison that have policies different from the rest of the facility.

The broadest policy is to allow any books or magazines. Beyond this there is every combination of soft backs only, hardbacks only, used OK, new books only, no magazines, no books without covers, books must be mailed with an invoice from the bookstore and so on. One of the tougher policies is requiring a prisoner to get a form signed by a prison administrator which is then sent to you and must be attached to the outside of the package. The forms often have a specified time period during which the books can be received by the prisoner. If your backlog of requests prevents you from answering this request within the allowed time period, the prisoner will have to get a new form and start over again.

In some instances there is a librarian or teacher at the prison who can get around difficult restrictions if you send books directly to them. It’s also more cost effective to send in a large box this way.

The best way to navigate the maze of regulations is keeping an alphabetized state by state list of the restrictions of all the prisons you have served. When preparing packages to send out, this list is referenced so as not to send books that will be immediately rejected by the prison mail room. Whenever corresponding with people in prisons that you haven’t sent books to before, ask them what their policy is so you can add it to your list.

E. Packing Books

Normally it’s a good idea to limit the books to two or three per package. If it’s a large hardback, perhaps a specific title someone asked for, sending just one book will suffice. Remember, some prisons place restrictions on the number of books or magazines in packages.

F. Stationary Form Letter

With each request you fill, you need to convey some general information about your program and how it operates. You can include a description of what your organization does and does not do on the back of your stationary. If you only want to send books every six months, tell them so. The description is your opportunity to ask for prison restrictions, advise them of your chronic backlog, or tell them what kinds of books you can‘t or won’t sent. Additional comments, inventory list, and personal notes can be written on the other side.

G. Addressing and Labeling

Sometimes it can be difficult to decipher the handwriting in the request letter. Usually there will be a name and address both in the letter and on the envelope. Between the two, the correct address is discernible. You can also cut out the address from the address received and tape it to the front of the package.

H. Sealing the Package

Packages are best sealed with 2 inch clear packaging tape. Duct tape and masking tape are against postal regulations and were designed for other purposes and won’t work well for parcels. Clear 2-inch tape is also easier to deal with than staples. Going around all four edges of the package can help to smooth down the corners, but be careful to leave enough untaped area for postage. One pass over the label will ensure it won‘t get smudged or torn. Tape is cheaper than postage, so don’t worry about using too much.

I. Verifying Prisoners Current Location

It’s a good idea to check every inmate’s location in the prison system’s data base to see if they have been transferred or released. Check the Department of Corrections website of the state(s) you serve to look up inmate locations. For federal prisons look them up in the federal system. The Prison Books Collective saves at least $200 a month checking the addresses.

J. Weighing

Media mail rates are by the pound. If you decide to weigh and stamp your packages yourself, you will need a reasonably accurate scale. It doesn’t have to be digitally calibrated to fractions of an ounce, just something that will tell you what’s over one pound or under 2 pounds. Always round up to the next pound, for example, 1 pound 2 ounces needs 2 pounds worth of postage. There will also be occasions when you will need to send packages over 2 pounds. If your scale is misadjusted on the high side, you will soon find out because the post office will return some of your packages with postage due.

K. Stamps and Postage

Take all your wrapped and addressed packages to the post office. A postal worker will then weigh each one, determine the necessary postage, place a post office sticker on each package in lieu of a stamp, and keep a running tab of the accumulated total, which you then pay by check, cash or debit card.

If you use this method you don’t need your own scale and you don’t have to bother with stamps; the Prison Books Collective is quite happy with it. Ask your local post office for more details.

Many groups have successfully set up a table outside a busy post office and asked passersby to take a package to mail. With each package not costing more than a few dollars, this is an easy way for sympathetic folks to contribute with little effort and strain on their pocketbooks.

L. Transporting Packages to the Post Office

There is a great variety in sizes, layout and staffing in post offices. Each has its own little quirks. In any urban area there is a large main post office with many smaller satellite branches in the vicinity. The branches may have shorter hours of operation and not be fully equipped to provide all services. All mail sent out of the city usually departs from the main office and you may want to deal exclusively with them. There are plastic tubs available from the post office at no charge. They can be used to transport your packages.

Forward  to IV. Peripheral Details
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