Books behind bars: An inside look at the Prisoners Literature Project
on May 7, 2019
During a Sunday afternoon meeting in April, a team of volunteers at the headquarters of the Prisoners Literature Project (PLP) worked like machines. About 300 letters had come in over the previous week alone. Each letter was a call from a prisoner somewhere in the United States who hoped to receive books that would fill their long days. Frequently embedded in the list of requests was a desire for some personal attention, too. “I am losing my life, marriage, job, dog friends and all,” one letter read.
Due to the number of requests that pour in, the volunteers are perpetually behind by at least about a month and a half. Only about 15 people from all over the East Bay attend to the replies. But PLP’s operation is organized from a small white house in South Berkeley shared with other nonprofits. They wouldn’t have room for more people, anyway.
At the Sunday meeting, the volunteers systematically went through the letters, one after another, and made note of the book requests: topics like the history of the Aztecs, computer programming or drawing techniques. Then they scanned a bulky folder titled “Master List” describing restrictions for sending books to almost every US prison. Most don’t allow hardcovers, some don’t allow more than three books per package, others want all the books to be new—or at least new-ish. A prison in Banning, California, for example, permits nothing about sex, racism, riots, violence or unlawful gambling. If a prison forbids books with sexual content, that also includes art books showing how to draw a nude body. With that in mind, the volunteers scavenge for the right book in the PLP’s library.
Although tricky, for many, that’s the fun part. “You get to be a little book recommender for people you have never met,” said Tyler Dupuis, an Oakland resident. He was the shift’s coordinator, and has been volunteering there for two years. The group is hardly ever able to offer specific titles when those are requested. However, they can usually pick something similar—sometimes a book that means something to them personally— and hope that it will resonate with the other person, too.
But on Sunday, Dupuis was not doing that. He was sitting at the manual labor table tying books together, wrapping, Scotch taping and boxing. PLP is an anarchist organization in a sense that no one stands above anyone else in the hierarchy of volunteers. Other than coordinating shifts, there are no particular roles. People are just supposed to do whatever needs to be done. So most of the time he was busy packing books like Native American Testimony, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and some Isaac Asimov. And then there are dictionaries and thesauruses. A sea of them. As always. That’s the most common request. While most of the books are donated to the organization, they have to buy dictionaries to keep up with the demand.
“The requests are extraordinarily varied,” Dupuis said. Some feel so far out that they wouldn’t consider fulfilling them.
For example, said Gina Shepard, a volunteer of 20 years, prisons are often very racially-segregated places, and that’s reflected in the book requests. Sometimes they get a letter seeking white supremacist literature or something anti-Semitic. Instead, she said, “I will send them books on the Holocaust. I don’t know if they throw them away.”
Some of the requests are more coded, like a request for books about Norse mythology, which could plausibly be benign or tied to white supremacist ideas. Then it’s a judgment call whether to send it.
But far more often, incarcerated people want just to relax and have fun—to read a mystery novel or a detective story. Volunteers say that there has been a Harry Potter phase, too. Frequently, people want how-tos, like how to learn new languages. Shepard said that prisoners know they will have a hard time getting a job when they get out, so they will even look for advice on skills like shepherding or beekeeping.
As long as it helps, the volunteers will try to provide it. Feeling like they can help and show that they care is the reward. But thank-you letters are appreciated, too.
One of them goes like this: “The two books I received were A Californian’s Guide to the Birds Among Us, and Vietnam: A History. Both books were excellent and very informative. There are quite a few birds in the California field guide that we have here in Florida. I enjoy reading and learning about birds. Every time I go out to the recreation yard I try to take some food for the birds. I always don’t have enough for all of them. The seagulls want to eat it all.” The passage is followed by many thank you’s. In hopes that it would help, the prisoner added five postage stamps to defray the mailing costs.
Oakland North spent time with four volunteers, to learn about how the program works and why they got involved.
Oakland resident and PLP volunteer Diana Sands cannot really pick out a point a moment, or exactly what it was, that got her interested in her activist work. She just remembers that in 2003 she went to a meeting in the basement of a church in Boston where an organization called Prison Books Program packaged and sent books to people in prison, just like PLP does.
Every meeting was different, but from the first time she went, it always felt meaningful. Sands felt a very intimate connection to people so marginalized. By the second meeting, she was already bringing friends, and they told her how great it felt, too. She also brought her mom, who had once been a teacher. “She was really touched by all the people asking for dictionaries. The next time I saw her, she went to a store and bought a bunch of dictionaries and thesauruses and donated them,” Sands recalled.
Soon after she started sending books, Sands also started visiting female prisoners, and she has been doing that ever since then. When she moved across the country to California, her commitment to this work stayed with her.
Now she visits with an organization called California Coalition for Women Prisoners. About eight people go every time. On each visit, several women talk to them for 45 minutes about whatever is on their minds, and the volunteers try to find ways to help them, or at least put them in touch with the right people. Some people want to talk about abuse, some need doctors, some could make use of organizations specializing in adoption or parental rights. But, Sands said as she sorted through letters, “I’d say 75 percent of the impact that one makes in a visit like that is just sitting and listening, so that someone on the inside knows that someone on the outside gives a fuck. The same with these books, it really is. That’s how it is for me.”
Just by looking at the envelope, Sands can decode a bit of what life is like for the woman she’s about to send books to. “Well, if she is in this prison, I guarantee you she is miserable,” Sands said, reading an address line. This person’s inmate number starts with a “W”— that means that she has been in the prison system for a very long time, either staying there for years or going in and out. “When I started visiting, they introduced numbers that start with X, because they ran out of W numbers. Now they’re past X numbers and into Y numbers,” Sands said. “When I noticed that visiting someone in February, I thought that it’s crazy. It’s just so many people.”
And from the ward this woman is in, Sands can tell she’s also in solitary confinement or has one other roommate. “She’s in big trouble,” Sands said. “But that gives all of this much more meaning, right? She damn sure cannot get to the library. She probably gets out of the cell for like an hour every day. I think about that when I do this.”
For Tyler Dupuis, learning about injustices in the prison system was one of the first topics to make him feel shocked awake and outraged. He came to the topic through an online comedy site called Something Awful Forums. He started reading a thread about the prison system out of vague curiosity, he recalled, but found himself glued to it.
“There was one person in particular who had been incarcerated. He posted unbelievable facts. Things that make your head spin. From there on, it’s just one of those things that you know is awful, but just need to know more about it,” Dupuis said. “Someone gets caught with a small amount of marijuana, but happens to be in a certain parish in Louisiana where the rules are draconian, and suddenly they’re in prison for 15 years.”
The thought of solitary confinement, of unlit rooms and staying without human contact for weeks, was enough to send shivers down his spine, Dupuis said. “To realize that this is happening and nobody cares, people are even profiting off of it, is truly disturbing,” he said.
He also fears the cards are stacked against people without means. As a kindergarten teacher at the small, close-knit East Oakland Burckhalter Elementary School, he said he can see some kids starting to slip through the cracks already. Even that early in their lives, the divide between kids in something as simple as knowing letter names and sounds, or their ability to rhyme, or the size of their vocabularies, is significant. “That wasn’t my motivation for becoming a teacher, but it was certainly a motivation to remain a teacher and be a good one,” he said.
Dupuis said he also feels responsible “from day one to teach them how to be a person among other people.” On average, he’s responsible for about 20 kids, and he can see how a lot of them have already been affected by the environment they live in. Students come to school with all sorts of emotions, and then everyone has to find a way to deal with them, and get along as a group of 20 people who are also just trying to learn their letters. “It’s a juggling act, to say the least,” Dupuis said. But, he added, it’s an important one.
After moving to Oakland about two years ago, he decided that his interests in incarceration and education had felt logical, and now he was ready to do something about them. He had heard about groups like PLP, and joined because it felt like providing books and helping with education could mitigate at least a little bit of the prison system’s injustices.
“It was moving to see people starting to learn to read and write and, again, trying to find the best ways to aid them,” he said.
For volunteer Gina Shepard, an Alameda resident, two things have felt consistent throughout her life. The first one is her love for books. “I think books can change people’s lives. I think they can teach you a lot of things. Not to mention that, if you’re in prison with nothing to do to pass the time, it’s great,” she said. The other one is her interest in ending captivity, both animal and human.
Shepard was in her forties or fifties—she doesn’t remember, exactly—when she first began working as an activist, teaching people in prison how to read. What she saw there, she felt, were people in cages. When she visited, she felt she was in a cage, too. To her, realizing that that for some people incarceration lasts for months, even decades, felt like the worst experience anyone could go through.
“But I got kicked out of that group,” she recalled. Shepard was not supposed to do any favors to the prisoners, she said, but when a young man said he wanted to let his mother know he was finally learning to read, she couldn’t help it. Shepard called his mom.
This event, and the the arbitrary nature of many prison rules, made her want even more to stick to causes related to incarceration. So 20 years ago, Shepard got involved with PLP. “When I was first here, I read the letters and found them heartbreaking. People would ask for penpals and there was one time when I was writing to six different prisoners. I don’t even like writing letters,” she said.
Shepard sees no end to what she refers to as “the prison situation.” Her motivation is something similar to a quote that is often attributed to Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Shepard just wants to leave this planet a better place, she said. “If that means giving somebody a book that helps him pass time for a week, that’s great,” she said.
UC Berkeley Legal Studies student Maria Sanders was at the PLP library trying to find a book on the history of California or Ohio that a man incarcerated at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison said he would be interested in reading. But the bookshelf was giving her nothing. There were not even any books on the history of Western states.
This was not Sanders’ luckiest day. Another man wanted a book on cobras, which she also couldn’t fulfill, although she could send a book on Egyptian mythology and another one on civil engineering—his other request.
On luckier days, doing this volunteer work really makes Sanders feel uplifted. “For me, it’s almost selfish, actually. I really enjoy it. It’s really fun and touching for me,” she said. That’s why Sanders has kept coming back to the meetings since February.
A few weeks ago, she received a letter from a man who instructs yoga classes for his fellow prisoners. He was looking for books to learn new poses and techniques. Amazing, she thought. Finding that book for him felt special. That’s what she let him know in the letter she attached to the books.
This kind of work became important to Sanders after she did court observations for a class last school year. “I saw what it’s like for the defendants before they even get to prison, how already before they’re behind bars, it’s a grueling process. A lot of these prisoners aren’t given trials that they deserve,” she thought.
She felt she should do something to acknowledge incarcerated people as human beings, to acknowledge that other human beings have created the prison system, with all of its injustices. “Letting them know that we’re here and we’re thinking of them is what’s important to me,” Sanders said.
To find more information about the Prisoners Literature Project, visit Prisonlit.org.
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