October 13, 2020

One partnership sending books to prisons


One thing many people have learned during the various stages of coronavirus lockdown is that books make for excellent escapes. For incarcerated people this has long been a truth, but getting books into prisons is difficult in the best of times and organizations such as Books Through Bars (BTB) provide an essential service by fulfilling incarcerated readers’ wishlists. These organizations rely on volunteers to help with shipping and book donations from the public, but as with most things, the coronavirus has made things even more difficult.

Over at Publishers Weekly Calvin Reid has an excellent profile of Peter Miller, publicity director of Liveright and owner of Freebird Books, and his longtime partnership with BTB NYC. Since 2008 Reid has offered the basement of his bookstore as a base of operations for BTB collections and shipping, even hosting volunteer sessions three days a week. But the volunteer program was shut down in March due to the small size of the basement which doesn’t allow for adequate social distancing. Recently though, a very small team of one or two people have resumed receiving and shipping out books.

In order to jumpstart book donations, Reid started a monthly book drive in which customers can buy bundles of 3 books for $30. This month’s bundle is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Colson Whitehead’s Zone 1, and books from Beacon Press’s ReVisioning History collection. Previous bundles included John Lewis’s March: Book 1, Frantz Fanon’s Wreched of the Earth, and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Overall BTB has been able to donate 3,000 books since late spring, but they have a pretty substantial backlog of requests from incarcerated readers.

The most common requests are for dictionaries, comic books, and graphic novels. Reid quotes BTB volunteer Danny Schaffer as saying, “We receive letters that tell us that the comics and graphic novels remind [inmates] of home and childhood. They also serve as an entry point to read other books and serve as part of the educational mission of Books Through Bars.”

With many prison populations on lockdown because of COVID-19, the demand for books has only increased, making programs like BTB even more important than usual and cemented Miller’s commitment to this partnership. “BTB has raised my awareness of what prisoners have to go through to get books to read. Working with them has transformed me. Books are how we can all escape.”

If you would like to help out you can purchase Freebird bundles here, Greenlight Bookstore also hosts both a general BTB wishlist and a Prison and Police Abolition wishlist, or you could donate directly to BTB here.



Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.