Tucked away on the 4700 block of Baltimore Avenue is Books Through Bars, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to distribute new and used books to the incarcerated throughout Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic states.
Tommy Hansen has been volunteering for two years and is currently a member of the collective, which is a democratically-run body, usually comprised of five or six members, that makes decisions for the program.
“The collective is a consensus,” Hansen said. “It’s not hierarchical and everyone has a say in the decision-making process.”
Books Through Bars was founded in 1989 through New Society Publishing House on Springfield Avenue. After the publishing house went under, Books Through Bars moved to A-Space at 4722 Baltimore Ave. The collective meets every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. and the first and third Saturday of every month at 11:00 a.m.
Hansen said the program is vital because of the recent downturn of the economy.
“There are so many cutbacks right now and programs for prisoners are always some of the first to go,” he said. “Many prisoners have no access to books at all.”
Hansen explained that the program’s process of getting books to inmates has a few steps. First, a letter from someone who is incarcerated is opened and read, and the requested books are entered into a database. Then a label is printed listing the materials the prisoner requested and is adhered to the envelope. The letter is sorted into a “To Pick” stack. Volunteers choose a stack of envelopes and get busy locating books where they are bundled and shipped.
Pam Kosty has been contributing to the program for five years now. She was able to get her church, Mainline Unitarian, to do monthly donations and book drives.
“The letters are so touching and sometimes sad. It makes you want to work that much harder,” Kosty said.
Tyler Lau has been volunteering with Books Through Bars to fulfill a civic engagement class requirement at Drexel University.
“I also work at a library, so this was a perfect fit for me,” he said.
Hansen said some facilities have strict guidelines as to what they will and won’t accept. Many organizations do not accept hardcover books, vocational texts or any books at all. He added that most prisons decline any material describing current events. He said Books Through Bars accepts any books from the public, but the ones that are unsuitable are sold on Amazon with the money going to the program.
“We have prisoners who request material again and again, which is great.” Hansen said. “Afterward, the books either get passed to other inmates or become part of the prison library. Sometimes we get a letter with a cash donation to help cover postage. That’s not something we require, but many inmates want to help cover costs. For someone working for ten cents an hour that’s huge.”
To volunteer or learn more about Books Through Bars, go to its website at www.booksthroughbars.org