June 12, 2012

Prison book program celebrates 40 years of freeing minds


The Prison Book Program HQ in the basement of the United First Parish Church, Quincy, MA

It’s the 40th anniversary of the Prison Book Program, based in Qunicy, MA, said to be the oldest such book donation program in the country, according to this story in the Boston Globe.

Founded in 1972 by the Red Book Store Collective in Cambridge, MA, “The Prison Book Program was initially committed to distributing politically progressive literature,” according to the Program’s Web site. “The founding members understood that reading was crucial for prisoners who often had substandard educations and scant access to books through prison libraries.”

The all-volunteer staff estimates they have sent out more the 4,400 books to prisoners this year alone, and estimates that they have sent out more than 140,000 books since settling into their new home in a church basement in Quincy, MA in 2004.

Volunteers congregate every Tuesday night to help get reading materials into the hands of inmates—individually wrapping packages of books and sending them directly to those who request them. From this modest church basement, they send out thousands of books to prisons and jails all over the country. And their work has spread, according to the Globe:

What began in 1972 as a grass-roots effort at a radical bookstore in Cambridge has developed into a full-fledged nonprofit that has served as a model for similar initiatives elsewhere. The Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis and another books-to-prisoners effort in North Carolina were both launched by former volunteers of the Prison Book Program.

“We have more demand than ever before,” Pam Boiros, one of the program’s longtime volunteers told the Globe. They are working on a six-month backlog of requests. Boiros explained the books can be hard to come by in prison, inmates have limited access to the library, and the libraries are very uneven in what they have to offer. Most correctional facilities don’t allow inmates to receive books from friends and family. Books can only come from a bookstore or publisher, but most prisoners can’t afford to buy books on their own.

The Prison Book Program seeks to fill the gap. Requests come in for books on every topic—from Native American Studies, to how to start your own business, to Westerns, mysteries and religion. But one book is the most popular of all. “Dictionaries are, by far, the most requested kind of book,” Boiros told the Globe. “More than 1,000 have gone out this year alone.”

And, while the requests keep coming, the Program also receives many notes of thanks. One such letter from an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison was quoted by the Globe:

“At the age of 43 I was once again in prison. I was severely depressed and had no hope for ever breaking the cycle of drugs and prison. I was completely alone and contemplating suicide. That’s when I read The Diary of Anne Frank,” he wrote. “I read her diary in one sitting and I have not been the same since. This little girl made this grown man cry. This little girl held mirrors up to me from every angle, making it impossible for me to avoid myself any longer. All my self-pity and blaming had disappeared. This little girl smacked me across the face and forced me to wake up.”

The inmate went on to say that he had successfully completed a six-month drug and alcohol treatment program and a course in automotive technology and was now taking an upholstery class.

“After reading about the Holocaust, I will no longer complain about prison food or clothing. I am completely aware of how fortunate I am, and this awareness will never leave me,” he wrote.

Such letters keep the volunteers inspired, and coming back to wrap and mail more books. And the volunteers share the satisfaction that all booksellers, librarians and book lovers know — matching someone up with a book that’s important to them. “I love it,” Christine O’Neill, a Belmont resident and longtime volunteer told the Globe. “It’s tangibly rewarding. You’re so glad when you find a good book for someone. That’s very satisfying.”


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.