Inspiring

New York: Free books to inmates

Reading books reduces isolation and gives prisoners education, resources and a sense of community.

books

For 21 years, NYC Books through Bars has been doing humanitarian outreach to incarcerated people through books. Literacy and books are a basic human right according to the nonprofit organization and providing books is the right thing to do.

Books through Bars helps to bridge the gaps between prisons and the outside world by decreasing isolation by providing education and resources to inmates. Books form connections to the outside and connections between prisoners who frequently share the books among themselves.

"If people in prison could be armed with knowledge and have a sense of their own empowerment, that would allow them to better their situation" Beena Ahmed, a coordinator at NYC Books Through Bars told Daily Good.

The books are mailed directly to the prisoners. Volunteers work two-to-three times a week to match the books to the requests that people in prison send. The organization sends these books absolutely free.

The books are donated by members of the community and the project runs out of the basement ofFree Books which donates the space. Packing material is also donated, all the labor is volunteered, and the only expense is postage which has to be raised by fundraisers and donations.

Books are provided to inmates in all but a small number of states that have their own regional programs, with a priority for New York. Some states, like Texas, severely restrict what books can be sent. Some of the forbidden topics like martial arts training make a huge amount of sense but some are just arbitrary. New York, until the repeal of Directive 911a in 2018, only allowed prisoners to receive packages from six approved vendors who only offered 77 books in total.

The letters with book requests from inmates - sometimes several to an envelope to save postage - ask for a variety of books. Sometimes other inmates write for people who are not English speakers. Many of the letters are available to read on the organization's website.

Educational materials like GED practice books, math & writing books, classic literature, and dictionaries (there is a wait list on providing dictionaries) are frequently requested. Many inmates ask for books that they hope will help them learn new skills, like building solar greenhouses, growing palm trees commercially, dog training, or travel books.

Some prisoners who are in solitary confinement or death row just want entertainment and request crossword or sudoku puzzle books.

In their letters, the inmates express gratitude for the books they received or want to receive, describe how important getting the books is to their lives, and most say that they will share the books with other inmates or give them to the prison library.

Many prison libraries are understocked and out-of-date. Coupled with low literacy levels or lack of English, this situation leaves many prisoners with no outlets or ways to improve and prepare for reentry into society after release.

That is why the work of NYC Books through Bars is so important. It can make the difference between leading a productive life or ending up back in prison.

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