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The Story Behind the Prison Books Movement

Updated: Apr 7

Books weren’t allowed in prisons in the 1970s; since then, millions have been given to incarcerated people across the country.


MARCH 15, 2024


Moira Marquis, co-editor of the new collection Books Through Bars: Stories from the Prison Books Movement, describes more than thirty U.S.-based projects that send legal resources, letters, and books to people imprisoned throughout the country as “mailing care.”


Books Through Bars Cover

Despite censorship and constantly changing rules about what prisoners can and can’t receive by mail, the largely volunteer-run prison books movement provides people inside with what Marquis calls “an escape from incessant monotony and loneliness.” It’s enormously challenging since approximately  60 percent of adults in prison are functionally illiterate (the figure skyrockets to 85 percent for incarcerated youth), nonetheless, “Books Through Bars” programs give people tangible support and a meaningful connection to the outside world.  


The programs began more than 50 years ago, in the 1970s, after political prisoner Martin Sostre brought a series of successful lawsuits to challenge carceral censorship. Prior to Sostre’s decade’s-long efforts, prisons limited available reading material to religious texts like the Bible. Since Sostre’s victory, groups sending magazines, newspapers, and books have proliferated.


Writer-activist Victoria Law co-founded Books Through Bars NYC in 1995 and remained active with the project for fifteen years. Her motivation was two-fold.  “Friends from high school who were sent to Rikers Island told me that they started reading there,” she told The Progressive. “They said it was a way for them to mentally escape and broaden their horizons.” 

At the same time, Blackout Books, a now-defunct New York City anarchist bookstore that Law frequented, began sending books to people in prison. “We initially thought we’d focus on the tri-state area, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and give priority to requests from youth, women, and people of color,” Law recalls. 


But that wasn’t what happened. “As word about the project spread, we started to get loads of letters from adult men incarcerated in Texas,” she says. “We were soon getting 400 letters a month and were constantly behind and constantly fundraising to fulfill requests.”


Project volunteers also had to learn prison protocols, from which prisons barred hardcover books, to which ones barred second-hand texts from entering. They also learned about arbitrary exertions of power. “Early on, many of the letters we received from Texas were enclosed in envelopes decorated by the letter writer,” Law recalls. “This continued until the authorities banned envelope art. There was no reason for this, but it showed us the arbitrary and capricious power of prison administrators.” 


Although she stepped back from Books Through Bars NYC in 2010, Law notes that the project has experienced tremendous growth over its 29 year history and currently sends out between 150 and 250 packages a week, approximately 10,000 annually, thanks to an all-volunteer team that spends between twelve and fifteen hours each week fulfilling requests. The majority of books continue to go to Texas, but letters from incarcerated people in other states are not uncommon. The most frequently requested books are dictionaries and almanacs. “We also get lots of letters asking for children’s books. Many people inside have kids and want to read to them over the phone or in recordings sent by email,” member Daniel Schaffer says.


Schaffer says that the project remains a shoestring operation, funded by donations from individuals and small grants from a handful of family foundations. But money is not the only obstacle facing the organization. 


“Censorship is growing,” Schaffer says. “In one instance a Boy Scout Handbook was rejected because it included information on tying knots. An almanac was rejected because it showed the image of a $1 bill. I assume the prison authorities were worried about counterfeiting, so we crossed out the image and re-sent it. So far, it hasn’t bounced back. We also had a graphic novel rejected because it included a panel showing people rolling cigarettes.”


A growing number of states are now trying to completely block books from coming into prisons and are limiting reading material to what can be found on prison-supplied tablet computers.

A growing number of states, Schaffer adds, are now trying to completely block books from coming into prisons and are limiting reading material to what can be found on prison-supplied tablet computers.  


“The tablets are cheap closed networks without Internet access,” Moira Marquis explains. “They break easily and can overheat. And if a person wants to read a book or see a movie, they have to pay by the minute for content. Most people get only a small number of free minutes per day. There’s also back-end censorship. When we perused a catalog of reading options, we found eighty-six titles about Jesus and zero about Martin Luther King.” 


Marquis argues that incarcerated people should have access to both books and tablets and stresses that it should not be an either/or.  This should not be contentious, she says. Indeed,  despite assertions that tighter controls are necessary to keep contraband from entering the prisons, she suspects a different motivation. “Controlling what enters a prison is not about keeping drugs out,” Marquis concludes. “It’s an ad-hoc, willy-nilly display of power.”


Prison Books Projects have resisted this dynamic for nearly fifty years while simultaneously providing aid and comfort to countless incarcerated men, women, and youth. As one incarcerated person wrote in a letter that is included in the book: “Everyone needs a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, a book to occupy the mind . . . . No amount of thank yous can ever measure the gratitude I have for you. I can’t wait for the next trip to far distant lands [where] you’re able to send me.”





 

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