Each year, 24,000 novels, dictionaries and books of poetry are packaged and shipped around the country by volunteers of the Berkeley-based Prisoners Literature Project. For nearly 30 years, the volunteer-run organization has provided books to prisoners in an effort to nurture rehabilitation and encourage education among this sometimes-forgotten population of society.
“A lot of them don’t have family—people forget about them,” said volunteer George Vassiliades as he hung the Prisoners Literature Project banner during the project’s fundraiser in Oakland this weekend. “They are looking to better themselves and become more productive and better people. They don’t have a library and inmates don’t have anything to do, and that might lead to more violence.”
The site of the Saturday night event was the Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a downtown Oakland volunteer-run gallery that is known for its DIY art classes and was a co-founder of the monthly Art Murmur. Rock Paper Scissors donated its volunteers and a gallery space for the silent auction. Spread across five tables were donated items like silkscreened shirts (made on the spot in front of guests), art and handmade accessories by local artists, and gift certificates to various businesses. All proceeds go directly to funding postage costs, which amounts to about $17,000 a year, said Jessica Caradi, one of the project’s volunteers for the past year and a half.
Caradi said the project’s “liberating philosophy” is the idea that books represent a kind of power for individual prisoners. “Almost 2 million people wake up every day in prison,” she said. “Prisoners really need their imagination stimulated. They’re craving constructive outlets.” The project advertises its efforts to prisoners through listings in prison publications, such as Prison Legal News, and the Oakland-based Prisoner Activist Resource Center’s prisoner support directory, said Caradi.
Jen Zoom, a longtime member of Rock Paper Scissors Collective, jumped at the chance to support the Prisoners Literature Project after having spent a day volunteering with them. She said the experience was “like picking out a gift for someone.”
“I think [Prisoners Literature Project] is a really exciting project to be involved with,” Zoom said shortly after she arrived at the fundraiser. “When people think of prisons, it’s very overwhelming and intimidating. But I think when you have that personal experience of reading a letter from someone, it’s very humanizing.” Zoom said the collective would continue its support of the project and that she hopes other community groups will do the same in utilizing the collective’s gallery space.
The project receives more than 1,000 new book requests a month, Caradi said, on top of the current four-month backlog. Prisoners write a letter with topics of interests or specific books they want. Volunteers search for specific books and topics at the project’s library, which is located inside a Berkeley community center called the Grassroots House. The library now contains about 10,000 books, Caradi said. If the project doesn’t own anything that fits the prisoner’s request, volunteers purchase books through sponsorships with local bookstores or with individual monetary donations. Then the package is sent off—along with a handwritten letter—to one of the fifty states the project serves. (Texas has its own program in Austin that was started by a former member of the Prisoners Literature Project, said Caradi.)
But the process isn’t as simple as just mailing out books. Regulations for most prisons don’t allow books to be mailed by individuals. Instead, only “pre-approved vendors,” such as publishers or bookstores, are allowed to be senders. That’s where Bound Together Books comes into play. The San Francisco bookstore, which actually started the Prisoners Literature Project in the early 1980s, receives all prisoners’ letters on behalf of the project. Those letters are then handed off to project volunteers who take care of the rest of the process. If it weren’t for the bookstore, the project would not be given access to get the books to prisoners, said Caradi.
A 15-year project volunteer, Penelope (who declined to give her real name but opted to use her nickname), said that in addition to acquiring a proper vendor for mailing packages, each prison has its own list of requirements for the types of books it allows—most accept only new-looking paperback books and may reject used or hardcover books. Caradi said she is unsure of why hardcover books are sometimes rejected. The project also maintains a database of each prison’s specific requirements, she said, because of the significant variation in what is allowed.
Through another sponsorship with Moe’s Books in Berkeley, Penelope said, the project receives donations from the bookstore’s customers. If the bookstore rejects a customer’s book trade-in, the customer has the option to donate that book to the project. Caradi said customers can also donate any remaining store credit they have so the project can purchase any requested book that isn’t currently housed in their library.
“The diversity of subjects that prisoners end up requesting never ceases to impress me,” Caradi said. “I’ve gotten a lot of boat-building requests. I’ve gotten a couple of sea shanty requests. It’s all about dreaming about the life you’re going to construct when you leave.”
Penelope said requests range from black studies to DIY to sociology. But she said the most requested book is a dictionary.
“Imagine being in a cell with nothing to read,” Penelope said, “or reading one book and coming across a word not knowing what it meant and having no way to find out. It would drive you crazy.” Penelope said her own time in jail serves as a reminder to how unbearable it can be when confined to a small space without reading materials.
Because the bulk of the books are donated, the real need comes in the form of volunteers’ time—the project opens its Berkeley office twice a week, and it’s mostly volunteers who open the letters from prisoners, find the requested books, and then hand-write a response. Caradi said about 20 people volunteer on a weekly basis, and another 60 to 100 volunteer whenever they can. The “human element” of volunteers taking the time to respond, Caradi said, makes a difference in letting prisoners know people care.
Local high school students involved with buildOn, a national nonprofit that teaches young people about community service, are among the Prisoners Literature Project volunteers each week. Sometimes one of the local students volunteers during off-hours to help with the backlog of requests, said Asha Vitatoe, the program coordinator for the Bay Area chapter of buildOn.
Vitatoe said the students are aware of how fortunate they are to have access to books, and that’s why many of them continue to volunteer throughout their high school years. She hopes a new batch of students will continue volunteering after her senior students leave for college in the fall.
Penelope said volunteering is a way for people to “take some step to improve the world, rather than just feeling despair” for the prisoners.
“I think it’s a way of breaking the cycle of incarceration,” Penelope said. “And many of the great liberation leaders, like Cesar Chavez and Ghandi, Macolm X and Martin Luther King, did a lot of reading and a lot of writing in prison. So that’s our hope—that we’re helping to educate leaders of the future.”
You can drop off book donations at Bound Together Books, Moe’s Books, and Prisoners Literature Project. Monetary donations can be made via Paypal on the project’s website.