DC Books to Prisons is an entirely volunteer-based organization that sends books to prisons in 35 states. Last year, they sent over 6,000 books around the country and worked with certain librarians to fill their specific book needs. DC Books to Prisons receives literature requests via letters and sends individuals their requested selection directly. Jackie has been a volunteer since 2017 and stepped up as a board member in 2020 to deepen her involvement with the organization.
Can you talk about what access to books looks like in American prisons?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, it’s a spectrum from having great access to essentially nothing. Legally, all American prisons have to provide access to legal textbooks so that individuals can work on their own cases. States that have a more liberal stance perhaps have stronger funding toward prison library rehabilitation programs, so those facilities will have fairly good access to books. Private prisons, on the other hand, try to keep costs down as much as possible, so what they receive from us and other donations are all they have available besides legal textbooks. In our own backyard, we serve the DC jail where there is a public library branch inside the facility which is great. Owning a book is an entirely different experience in prison— you can’t write in it, have to return it quickly if it’s in high-demand, and can’t hold onto books that you form a special attachment to.
What does the request process look like?
Individuals write us letters to submit a book request. We are in resource guides that are passed around prisons to get the word out about us, and some find us by word of mouth through their bunkie or friend. The ideal letter is someone asking for a certain genre, since we’re all donation based it’s hard to send specific books or authors. The number one request we get is dictionaries. After that, thrillers, scifi, comics, and westerns are really popular. There’s a lot of escapism, outdoor time, and adventure in those genres that people can get lost in while reading. Almanacs, language books, and skills-based books are common requests as well, since some people are trying to pick up a new language or learn skills like computer training while they’re incarcerated. The Black incarcerated population is interested in Black history and African history books, which is the same with Native American individuals wanting to learn about their region or tribe.
How can individuals get involved in the work you do?
We take book donations! You can email us if you have a lot of books or can drop them off in person. If you aren’t in the DC area, there’s dozens of organizations around the country that do similar work to us that could take your donation. We also have a wish list online where you can buy books directly for us. Everyone who works here is a volunteer, the vast majority of the money we raise goes towards postage to send donations of books to facilities. A small percentage of the budget is used to buy specifically requested books for someone. Money donations are really helpful because it’s funnelled right into paying for shipping, which means we can send more books.
What is your favorite part of working with DC Books to Prisons?
I have a deep knowledge of books, so it’s great to be able to use my passion for reading to support the community. Although these individuals are incarcerated now, most of them are not on life sentences and will be returning to our community as our neighbors. It’s great to be able to support them through reading until they are released and give them the opportunity to grow and learn. I’ve seen in our requests that people are not requesting books that are on the NYT Bestsellers List that oftentimes we feel pressured to read even if we don’t want to. It’s made me reevaluate the books I read, and I’ve started to choose things that I’m genuinely interested in instead of just what’s being talked about.