November 20, 2017

Learning Some Words: Prison Book Program sends 450 dictionaries to inmates


Injustice. Privitazation. Nonviolent.

The bad news is that these are still words that describe our prison system.

The good news is that now more prisoners can look up the definitions to these words?

OK, maybe it’s not the exact news we’d most hope for, but still worth celebrating is the fact that the fantastic Prison Book Program has just raised $1,800 from sixty donors, as they announced last week in a tweet. This money will fund 450 dictionaries for prison libraries.

The nonprofit’s “Dictionary Drive” will provide prisoners with one college-level dictionary for every four-dollar donation. The program reports that dictionaries are among the most-desired items by inmates, making up approximately one-third of all requests. Per their fundraising site, they have supplied more than 10,000 dictionaries to prisoners in the last five years.

The dictionary drive isn’t only about dictionaries, though. If you want to provide an inmate with a GED study guide, the PBP recommends a donation of $12.50. And if you’re short on cash? Well, $1 covers the printing cost of their “We the People Legal Primer.” Heck, they’ll even take extra paper bags: nice, clean brown bags make great book covers.

The PBP started in 1972, as an offshoot of the Red Book Store Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because literally all good things come from bookstores. Back in the day, they mainly distributed politically progressive writings (nothing wrong with that). In the nineties, former PBP volunteers started two new ventures: the Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis, and the Prison Book Program in North Carolina. But as their reach grew, so did the requests they received from prisoners.

In 1988, the PBP began the National Prisoner Resource List, which they have published and distributed ever since. This and their “Legal Primer” (written by a former prisoner and PBP requstor) offer valuable legal and cultural resources to prisoners. Both are available for free on their website as PDFs; hard copies of the NPRL is sent to prisoners free upon request.

There are many studies linking increased education with decreased recidivism (here are just a few, from the Harvard Political Review and the Atlantic, among others). And Malcolm X famously hand-copied a dictionary while in prison, page by page.  But the PBP isn’t just about decreasing crime rates. Their mission is to help prisoners avoid reincarceration, but it is also to support the “educational, vocational and personal development” of inmates. And that—the justification of reading and knowledge for their own sake—is an important distinction to draw.

As their website states:

Books are crucial to the political, spiritual, and educational development of all people. Most prisons do not allow family and friends to send books into prisons; they must come from a bookstore or publisher… In a time of cuts in educational programs for prisons, we serve a vital purpose.





Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.