Zachery, 49, spent 19 years in prison in California, but his incarceration would have been even longer had it not been for a single book.
Zachery, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, was told that if he completed his associate’s degree while incarcerated, he could get at least six months off his sentence. The only thing standing between him and completion was a single sociology book he needed to pass his final course.
“The prison didn’t have any. No one at the prison had it. And I didn’t have the resources to buy a $200 textbook,” Zachery said. “Abolition Apostles was willing to rent the book for me, which enabled me to complete my degree in sociology. I was so grateful. It meant a lot to me.”
Abolition Apostles is a New Orleans faith-based organization that supports incarcerated people in everything from providing pen pals to donations to police station fees. Zachery said he had been exchanging letters with his pen pal, a member of the group, for at least a year, and she sprang into action when she learned he needed the manual.
He was released from Avenal State Prison early last year with at least two years less than his final sentence thanks to the diploma and other programs. As he strives to build a new life, Zachery said he hopes more people will understand the power of sending books to those incarcerated.
“It’s possible for something as simple as a book to completely change a person’s perspective and point them to a different course of life,” he said.
Abolition Apostles is one of many grassroots organizations across the country supporting and advocating for incarcerated people by sending books to prisons. In Los Angeles, the rapper Noname Radical Hood Bookcase sent thousands of books to incarcerated members of the group’s book club. In Austin, Texas, the Inside Books Project sends tens of thousands of donated books to state prisons each year. The New York chapter of Books Through Bars sends about 200 packages of books to people incarcerated in the state, and several other organizations across the country are doing similar work.
Local organizers say their mission to abolish prisons also includes building relationships with those incarcerated through book distribution programs.
“We get letters from someone who’s incarcerated and sometimes they say, ‘I’m going crazy. Send me anything!’ said Daniel Schaffer, a member of the NYC Books Through Bars collective. “It really is a mental health issue. Even the simple fact of receiving a letter, a package, can be a highlight of your day, your week, your month.
These efforts are still no small feat, they say. Censorship of books in prisons nationwide represents “the largest book banning policy in the United States,” according to a report by PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free speech.
In Illinois in 2019, the Danville Correctional Center removed hundreds of titles from the prison library that officials deemed “racially motivated,” according to Illinois Newsroom.
In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections briefly decided to shut down book donation programs and mail-order books and publications, citing safety concerns, but reversed the decision within months due to backlash from the public.
“Everyone who got involved called the governor. [Tom] Wolf, wrote letters, shared the story on social media — it was really public pressure, we believe, that led the DOC to update its policy,” said Jodi Lincoln, program organizer. book donation from Pittsburgh Book ‘Em, Philadelphia. Questioner then.
Although the department rescinded the restriction, officials announced an additional hurdle: The books would be sent to a security processing center before the prison mailrooms.
That same year, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision wanted to implement a policy that would have only allowed packaged books from a handful of designated vendors – but protests prompted the government of the time. Andrew Cuomo to suspend the program before it could begin.
Prison systems in Connecticut, Alabama, Mississippi and other states have similar restrictions in place. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has banned thousands of books, a move that has concerned lawyers for years.
Meanwhile, prison libraries are generally poorly stocked and access to them is often limited. Organizers say such restrictions make their efforts difficult and stress their importance.
“I believe that many of these rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Preventing access to information in any form is extremely harmful,” said Paul Tardie, member of the Inside Books Project collective. “It’s also about opinions and personal views. … It allows prison officers and guards to control the population in a way that benefits them more than focusing on the growth of those locked up.
The benefits of reading while incarcerated are well documented, such as promoting rehabilitation, combating high rates of illiteracy in prison populations – 3 out of 5 people in US prisons cannot read – and simply help people cope with the harsh prison life. Book donation programs are credited with helping to provide hope and a connection to the outside world. Studies show that reading and education programs reduce recidivism and that connecting with family during incarceration promotes health adaptation after a person’s release. Experts have said that reading combats feelings of isolation and alienation, and prison reading groups can even foster empathy.
“Having access to books, education and self-improvement is a fundamental part of human dignity,” said David Brazil of Abolition Apostles. “In many prisons, people don’t have adequate libraries, or no libraries, so we meet needs that aren’t there. As a pastor, this work is a way of loving my neighbor as myself.
Noname’s popular book club prioritizes sending radical books written by Black, Indigenous and other people of color to incarcerated members of its book club.
“We understand that when a loved one is arrested or sent to jail, the ripple effects are felt throughout the community,” the book club’s website reads. The group even publishes book reviews by incarcerated people and argues that supporting incarcerated people is supporting communities.
Meanwhile, there are groups like Survived & Punished New York, which advocates for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence and publishes poetry from incarcerated people in its quarterly newsletter, Free: Survivors.
Even before the pandemic, it was not easy for organizations to get parcels of books to incarcerated people. Today, with the number of volunteers dwindling, many groups are working harder than ever to meet the growing needs in prisons across the country. Tardie said only eight volunteers work with the Inside Books project to respond to 2,000 book requests per month. In New York, Schaffer said only five people work with Books Through Bars to collect book donations and send the packages to state prisons.
Many of these book programs rely on donations and sometimes purchase titles from bookstores and presses to fill their book inventory and meet the needs of incarcerated people. Abolition Apostles, which sends books on a smaller scale, at least 15 a month, has partnered with Marcus Books, one of the nation’s oldest black-owned bookstores, to fulfill the orders.
These efforts continue a long tradition. Black-owned bookstores, grassroots organizations and book donation programs have prioritized sending books to American prisons for decades.
“With books, it’s not just a useful information tool. It really helps get people out of those walls,” Tardie said. “It has a major impact on people’s well-being.”
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