There are over forty organizations in the United States that distribute donated books to prisons and incarcerated individuals. One of these nonprofit organizations is Books to Prisoners, located in Seattle, Washington. They have been responding to individual requests for books for close to five decades. We sat down with Andy Chan, who has volunteered there since 1994, to discuss how the organization works and some of the challenges and rewards of operating the book donation program.
Tell us a bit about Books to Prisoners.
It’s an organization that has been around since the 1970s. Initially it started out in support of political prisoners. Subsequently it has broadened out quite a lot to be an organization with the mission to support the self-empowerment and education of incarcerated individuals across the United States.
How does the donation process work?
We respond to individual requests that people send us for specific books. As a secondary thing we will send to libraries or prisons that request, but usually in those circumstances we ask that they pay the postage for it. For individual requests from individual people, we send everything for free.
People request the whole spectrum of stuff, and we do our best to respond to those requests as we can. There was a pandemic dip in the number of requests we got, but typically we get something in the region of 900-1200 requests a month. We can respond to most of those but there are some states or individual prisons we cannot get into. We have a limited supply and limited space so we can’t stock everything. We get most of our books through individual donations of used books. Occasionally we will get publishers or bookstores that will donate overstock of new books and occasionally individual donations of new books. We do not typically have a budget to buy new books. Just recently we managed to do a couple of good fundraisers which will allow us to do that.
What are some of the challenges the organization faces trying to donate these books? For example, are there books you cannot send?
You can imagine that not every prison or every state DOC is interested in our services. We cannot get into certain states, and the states that we can get into are liberal in their interpretation of which books can get in. Some will only allow new books, some will only allow paperback books, some will have a limit on the number of books each prisoner can get at any one time or have in their cell at a time. There are content restrictions that we have to be aware of, and there are things that we know we can’t send: anything with a spiral binder, pictorial nudity, or maps of the states for example. We don’t bother to send those in. We realized it’s better to self-censor than waste the postage on those things.
Is there a particular book or genre of books that is often requested?
Dictionaries are consistently the most requested item. The requests change over time a little bit, but the very typical ones, the evergreen requests, are items like Black history, radical Black history, horror, Sci-Fi, and trades books – like carpentry books, HVAC systems, auto mechanics. Reentry books, business books, how-to books, like how to start businesses, how to rebuild your life after prison, how to draw. But honestly the subject matters are so incredibly broad that everything has been requested at one point in time.
As a nonprofit organization, how do you raise funds to keep sending out books for free?
In terms of fundraising, individual donations have always been the primary funding source. In earlier years we got chunks of money through benefit shows – I’m talking three digits – punk shows, things like that. The proportion of individual donations has gone up a lot. We get occasional donations from foundations, but that is fairly rare.
We’ve had very little luck in getting solicited donations from foundations. Because as a smallish organization with branches in two states, Washington and Oregon, we are pretty local but our reach is national. For local founding organizations we are not local enough, and for a national founding organizations typically we are too small to be of consideration. There are some family foundations that will help every now and then, but they provide unsolicited donations. We don’t ask them for it. They find us and offer it up.
We are almost entirely volunteer. Everybody was a volunteer until 2013 [when] there was a lawsuit, that we were not a party to but that we benefited from. That netted us enough money to pay a part-time program coordinator, who currently has fifteen hours with our organization. But other than that, the board is all volunteer, always has been, and almost all the work is done by volunteers.
In 2019 Washington state issued a ban stopping non-profits from donating used books to prisoners. Books to Prisoners was a major part of the push back on this ban, and eventually it got reversed. Tell us a bit about how that happened.
We got to be at the forefront of this because it affected us directly. Although the ban was probably announced, it was buried deep in the DOC’s website, saying that they were no longer going allow non-profits to send used books. They didn’t tell us directly. We found out when we started to get all the packages back from Washington prisons marked “not authorized”. We started to notice a sudden uptick in refusals. So, we did some sleuthing on the internet and we found this memo from the director of prisons. We immediately tried to contact them, but when we did not get anything helpful from them, we decided that we had tried the nice frontal approach and then let’s do what we can to not allow this to settle in.
It was a textbook example of how to respond to these kinds of things: we marshalled the grassroots supporters, the different agencies that send books across the United States, to start bombarding the DOC with complaints about this. We talked to the print and TV media to see if there was interest, and we were able to generate interest. We contacted our elected representatives up to the governor’s office and managed to get a statement from the governor, who was running for the nomination of the president at the time, to say that he had not been told about this and that he had concerns about restrictions of educations materials to incarcerated people. And all of our social media was abuzz with all this. Basically, we corralled these different elements, and I think that it was after less than a month we were successful in getting them to walk the ban entirely back.
Your website has a great list of book donation programs, and there are quite a lot of them. It’s obvious that these organizations serve an important function. But do you think this points to a gap in the system, or problems on an institutional level, for example, lack of funding, book bans, and restrictions in general. In an ideal world would these nonprofits not be necessary?
Ideally, we wouldn’t have a carceral system in the first place. We would have something else to manage these types of situations. But the status quo is that we have a carceral system. The next best thing is that the people who are locking people up should be funding educational systems entirely. But given that that is also unrealistic at this time, I think that organizations of our nature should have – it’s obviously unrealistic to say ‘unrestricted’ – but let’s say minimal restrictions, based entirely on rules regarding contraband. If the rule is no shivs, no hacksaw blades, and no fentanyl-laced pages I think the books-to-prisoners groups around the country would be okay with that.
Other than that, books with highlighting, things like that, there is no evidence that suggests this is a threat to society. This is the kind of thing that we are for, but do we have the capacity to enable that? No. Not as an individual group and as a collection of small, almost entirely volunteer groups, it’s also quite tricky. We recognize that we are putting our fingers in the dikes to stop the huge flood of increased restrictions that the DOCs would probably like to be able to install on us. Unless the national federation really gets together with sufficient funding, we will be doing what we have been doing, which is to react to state restrictions. Certainly, there have been some restrictions that we have not been able to push back on because there hasn’t been a local group that has been able to mobilize local support. The push-back on the Washington ban was particularly effective because there was a group in Washington that could be the center of that.
Books to Prisoners is one of the longest lasting book donation programs in the US. What do you think the organization owes its longevity to?
It has a really important mission, for starters. There is a strong base of people to draw sympathetic short-term volunteers and people who have been interested in long-term commitments to societal change. Those are really the two key elements. It’s really difficult to base something on a personality or a single person. If that person or personality goes away, then everything disappears. There are two people in this organization that have been around for over 25 years, and we also have a broad range of key people who take up a number of different posts. So broad basing an organization is a key part to longevity, I think.
When it comes to research on reading in prisons, there are a lot of articles that point to the right to access information and to the educational benefits of reading, mostly in context of reentry programs. But what about the pleasure of reading, or the right to recreational reading?
About twenty years ago, when we were going through a rough patch not having the necessary funds to send all the requests, the question came up of “What do we do to cut back on costs? What area should we cut back on?” It was narrowed to either a geographic change, cut out one or two states, or to cutting out fiction. The argument for cutting out fiction was that it’s not educational. We can focus on political, empowerment, or educational books – dictionaries, thesauruses, physics and math books, that sort of stuff – that would allow us to send those types of books to everybody. The counter argument to that was that fiction, even simple young adult fiction, romance, or Sci-Fi, is the entry drug to other reading. It will add to your vocabulary, it will engross you in the concept of reading and maybe lead you to other reading. So, it was argued that any kind of reading of this nature is educational and worthwhile. We opted at that point in time to make a geographic restriction rather than make a change by content.
I will also mention that part of the reason for sending to individuals, and this has been reinforced over the years many times, is the individual connection that is made by sending to individuals in prison, rather than just sending a bulk box to a library. We’ve gotten feedback many, many times from people that it made such a change to them to get something from someone on the outside. The fact that somebody else would bother to respond to them and show them a degree of kindness helped rebuild their esteem, helped rebuild their belief in themselves as part of society even as they are incarcerated. It’s not just an educational thing, it’s an individual relationship. We may only send one package of books to a person in the time of their imprisonment, but we have created a connection to the world on the outside. That package of books could be anything – comics, manga, whatever – it all counts.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of Books to Prisoners
If you would like to make a contribution to Books to Prisoners please visit their website at www.bookstoprisoners.net
To request a book from Books to Prisoners please send a letter with your name, address, and prison ID number to:
Books to Prisoners
c/o Left Bank Books
92 Pike Street, Box A
Seattle, WA 98101