Being able to pry open a book and getting lost in another world or learning a new skill or craft is a privilege not everyone can indulge in, including people living inside prison walls.
People in prisons have the opportunity to change this with the help of Books Through Bars, a non-profit organization based in West Philadelphia. Inmates send letters to the organization requesting reading material and Books Through Bars fulfills them.
“A lot of people like to say, ‘Why do we give so much to people who are in prison? They have TVs, they have all these books, they have this and that,’” said Alisha Williams, co-chair of Finance Committee and Books Through Bars collective member. “You read these letters and people are just like, ‘Our library is an old closet and there’s one rolling cart that we get to look at once a month and I get these dinky books that are from the 1980’s.’”
Books Through Bars, located at 4722 Baltimore Ave., has a large library of books collected through donations from the local universities and residents.
“We get a lot of cultural studies books and things like that from people in the neighborhood,” Williams said. “We had a mother and son come in and they put together a book drive for us through his Boy Scouts group and she also had a book drive through her hair salon. People actually find very creative ways to get books to us.”
Established in 1989, Books Through Bars services the Mid-Atlantic region, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia, Williams said.
Roughly 1,600,000 people made up the prison population in 2010, according to The Sentencing Project, so it comes as no surprise that the organization receives hundreds of letters per week.
“As many people know now, most of the people in prison are people of color,” Williams said. “We have Latino studies, African-American, Native American studies, things like that.”
Ethnic studies books are popular requests sent to Books Through Bars and the statistics indicate why. Over 60 percent of the prison population is made up of African-Americans and Latinos, according to The Sentencing Project.
Despite the numbers, ethnic books are far from the only ones requested. The selections vary as much as the inmates themselves.
“We have poetry anthologies, general fiction, horror, thriller, mystery, linguistic books, vocational studies,” Williams said. “People are often trying to learn a new skill because they know they’re going to come out in two years and who knows how far technology’s going to have gone. We get a lot of requests for computer technology information, HVAC, all that stuff. Also, crossword puzzles, self-help books, magazines, architecture and engineering.”
To help process the sizable amount of letters flowing in, Books Through Bars has anywhere between 10 to 20 volunteers who sort through the letters, find books which match the requests and package them to send out.
Sometimes help comes from outside sources, like One Brick Philly, a volunteer organization that helps non-profits find volunteers.
On this day, Ajay Joshi was one of 10 volunteers who came to help from the organization.
“This is my first time to Books Through Bars,” said Joshi, the event manager with One Brick Philly. “I just saw their website, it was interesting and I thought I’d give it a shot. Today I am going through letters and I’m picking out books that fit what they’re looking for in the letters. I think a lot of these people, they want to do something with their lives after they get out. I think it’s a really cool way to get people to think outside of the prison, being exposed to the world outside.”
For Joshi, he found the experience as positive and something he would like to do again.
“This is an event that you really feel like you’re doing something,” Joshi said. “When you actually get to read the letters from the prisoners, a lot of them are very personal. It’s nice to read that and see how they think.”
Volunteering at Books Through Bars is unlike anything Joshi has done before.
“It’s not just like most volunteer work where you’re just lifting boxes or packaging food or just labor,” he said. “This actually requires you to think and it’s a very cool concept. There’s this creative aspect to it, too, which I like.”
Volunteers who package the books have the chance to enclose a little note back in response to the inmates and some take advantage of this opportunity.
Over the years, Books Through Bars has had more than its share of volunteers through the doors and has impacted many lives along the way.
“One of the biggest impacts I think that we have with our volunteers is that people are actually able to read letters, read the words from people who are incarcerated first-hand,” Williams said. “There are a lot of myths out there as far as what people request, if people are reading. I think one of our greatest impacts is being able to debunk some of those myths by people actually reading the letters and getting the words first-hand. Those experiences go a long way in actually getting people on the outside like us to understand the impact that we can have.”