About BTB

What we do:

Three times per week, Books Through Bars volunteers meet at our space in Brooklyn to match requests prisoners have sent us in the mail to the books on our shelves. (Learn more about how we started by reading an interview with the co-founder here). We mail book packages to individuals rather than prison libraries. Our book collection is donated by members of the community. Because we manage to get by in donated space, with donated books, donated packing materials, and volunteer labor, our only expense is postage money. We hold regular fundraisers to meet this expense.

We are a group of activists, librarians & archivists, editors, students, office workers, teachers, authors and other book lovers, and we welcome you to come to a packing session whenever you can make it, for however long you like. Travellers passing through town are more than welcome too.

Why we do it:

Members of the Books Through Bars Collective have different beliefs about the American prison system — some of us are abolitionists, and some are pro-prison-reform. But all of us are startled and angered by how difficult it is for prisoners to access decent educational reading material on the inside. We believe literacy and access to reading material is a human right.

By the end of 2010, 2.27 million people were in custody in state and federal prisons and in local jails. [1] The vast majority are incarcerated in jails and state prisons. The United States imprisons 716 people per 100,000 in the national population — a higher rate of imprisonment than in any other country in the world. [2]

Access to books in prison varies from state to state, partly because nowhere is it legally mandated that prisoners have a right to educational or recreational reading material, including through general library services.

Prisoners were denied access to federal Pell Grants in 1994. Most states eliminated prisoner eligibility for state tuition grants as well, and the number of college programs in prisons went from around 350 in the early 1980s to fewer than 12 by 2001.

New York State contributions to the corrections operating budget surpassed state contributions to SUNY and CUNY systems for the first time in 1994-5. At the time, New York ranked 45th out of 50 states in per capita state appropriations for higher education, even though the state had the fourth highest per capita income in the nation. [3]

68% of state prisoners have no high school diploma. [4] In New York State prisons, there are about 85,000 people total [5], and 75% of them never completed high school. [6]

As many as 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are confined in special super-maximum security facilities. [7] Many people in all types of institutions are put into solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. Isolation and sensory deprivation have been shown to exacerbate existing mental illness in some and actually to lead to psychosis in others. In prison, especially in isolated units, reading people’s stories in the form of novels or autobiographies or reading about current events helps stave off social deterioration and dehumanization.

New York State’s prison system has the greatest percentage of people in disciplinary segregation, and we have the third largest number of prisoners in all forms of segregated housing (administrative, disciplinary and protective custody) nationwide. The national average of the percentage of state prisoners in disciplinary segregation is 2.6%, while in NY it is 6.7%. [8]

At least 95% of all state prisoners will be released from prison at some point. In 2001, about 592,000 state prisoners were released. [9]

A study of people released from prisons in Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio showed that participants in education programs were significantly less likely to be re-arrested (57% of non-participants vs 48% for participants), re-convicted (35% vs 27%), and re-incarcerated (31% vs 21%). [10]

“Any discussion about reentry into society from prison begins with education.”
— Robert Sanchez, former prisoner and current program manager at STRIVE: East Harlem Employment Services [11]

Most people who write to Books Through Bars tell us that they are indigent and we are their only source of reading material.

[1] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations In The United States, 2010, December 2011

[2] International Centre for Prison Studies, Prison Brief for United States of America, 2011

[3] Dan Macallair, Khaled Taqi-Eddin and Vincent Schiraldi (Justice Policy Institute), New York State of Mind: Higher Education vs. Prison Funding in the Empire State, 1988-1998

[4] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Educational and Correctional Populations, January 2003

[5] The Sentencing Project, Total Corrections Population, 2011

[6] Center for Constitutional Rights, FAQs: Prison Phone Rates

[7] Supermax confinement in U.S. prisons, Committee on International Human Rights, September 2011

[8] 2002 Corrections Yearbook, found via The Correctional Association of New York

[9] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Reentry Trends in the United States, August 2003

[10] Office of Correctional Education/Correctional Education Association, Three State Recidivism Study, 2001

[11] “Former Inmates Stress Education” by Herb Boyd, New York Amsterdam News, Jul 22-28, 2004

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