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Books as Decarceral

By helping non-incarcerated people to experience a human connection with people inside, volunteering can open a curtain in the mind.


Prison Book Program (PBP) began in 1972. Its singular mission was to send books and reading materials behind prison walls that would help incarcerated people empower themselves. Like legions of others trapped in systems of oppression, the aim was for them to be empowered to wage the (literal) revolution that would break their chains. It operated as a loose collective of volunteers who met in the Red Book Store, a gathering place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for leftist activists of many kinds. The store carried almost exclusively leftist works—Maoism, Marxism, anti-colonial thought, feminism, Black liberation, and more—and a number of radical groups used its space, including Boston’s gay liberation collective. PBP was thus, at its origin, an overt and strident political project situated firmly within the world of Boston’s New Left. It aimed to build solidarity between people on both sides of prison walls through the sharing of revolutionary literature. Books were a way to resist the carceral state and, with it, state power more broadly. Thus PBP began its life as an abolitionist or decarceral effort.

The Prison Book Program of 2023 looks different. Rather than operating as a flat, anarchic collective, we now have a governing board of directors entrusted with setting the overall strategic direction of the organization and with stewarding its human, financial, and other resources. We also have a small paid staff, something which would have been unthinkable in the earliest days. PBP is now a more-or-less conventional nonprofit, sanctioned by the IRS to solicit and accept tax-deductible contributions. Most tellingly, our shelves are stocked with some activist titles, but with far more crossword puzzles, crochet books, mysteries, fantasy series, job-hunting guides, and the like. As an organization, we do not align ourselves with any particular ideology regarding crime, prisons, or politics.

Does this shift make PBP today a mere husk of its former self? And, inversely, would the firebrand radicalism which fueled its origins be recognized, rewarded, or rejected by the PBP community of today?

As PBP’s current executive director, I believe that the spirit of the program remains intact. The focus has always been, and remains centered on, supporting people behind bars. While our books may be more diverse and less radical on the whole, our reach has expanded dramatically, thanks in no small part to the legions of volunteers who give their time to make our work happen.

Volunteers have always been and will always be the lifeblood of the organization. In the early days, there were just a few people gathering a few times a month. Some had taught classes or facilitated programs in prisons or jails; others had been directly impacted by incarceration; others were activists working for the rights of incarcerated people.

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These early volunteers almost certainly had more ideological consensus about the U.S. prison and criminal legal systems than our current volunteers do. In 2023, however, well over a thousand volunteers will pass through our doors, and they will do so for a wide variety of reasons: they are college or high school students in need of service hours; they are motivated by religious beliefs; their employers have organized days of service. More than a few come because a court has ordered them to. I suspect that many of our volunteers are curious about the phenomenon which has somewhat too tidily come to be called “mass incarceration,” and some are mildly to very concerned about it. A much larger segment, I believe, holds no strong views, one way or the other, about the U.S. prison system. For some volunteers, coming to PBP is all about the books. In any given year, literally hundreds of thousands of books of every genre, format, and age stream through our space. For bibliophiles and bookhounds of all kinds, handling, sorting, and inspecting this flood of books can feel like heaven.

One of the primary purposes of hiring a small paid staff was to facilitate the hundreds of volunteer sessions needed to accomplish our work: responding to tens of thousands of handwritten letters from people in prisons and jails across the United States with a carefully assembled package of books chosen especially for them, along with a personal note of encouragement. Without our large and wildly devoted base of volunteers, it is simply unthinkable that we would achieve our goal of sending 17,000 packages containing more than 60,000 books in 2023.

But is there still an activist element to this work? I believe there is. A system as grotesque and cruel as our current prison system can only exist because of a devilish intellectual sleight-of-hand which writes off the humanity of those caught within it. They don’t really matter, or we wouldn’t be able to toss so many people into the functional equivalent of a garbage can for human beings. In many ways, U.S. incarceration tries to erase the individual human person: from the uniforms, to the numbers, to the wanton and purposeful destruction of any caring human relationships that people might have when they enter prison. I believe that mass acceptance of the prison system is only possible because the people inside it are almost wholly invisible to the general public.

Going along with this intellectual sleight-of-hand gradually becomes impossible for folks who spend time at PBP. People in prison are far from invisible there; they are everywhere. Furthermore, they are present as multidimensional, not reducible to a single crime or action. Their stories are everywhere, often told with great power and urgency. They write about their families; they write about their pain; they write about their love of Taylor Swift or Harley Davidsons or their dream of traveling to the Arctic Circle. They speculate on theoretical physics. They tell jokes. They write to express their rage at the courts. They write poems about their favorite books. They draw, paint, make origami, do crochet, and create every conceivable kind of artistic object, sometimes masterfully.

If the prison system mutes or silences the humanity and individuality of incarcerated people, PBP puts it on full blast. It is impossible not to see each letter writer as a complicated, interesting, full human person. More than anything, members of our community come to believe that the people who write to us deserve all of the amazing things that books can do for people, and that they deserve this to exactly the same degree as any non-incarcerated reader: They deserve to dream, imagine, grow, learn, be challenged, wonder, and envision and explore new worlds and new possibilities for themselves. And as Jocelyn Simonson previously wrote in Inquest, people can become radicalized through acts of service.

In this way, PBP issues an invitation to decarceral work of all kinds. By offering a low-stakes, safe, and fairly simple way for average people to really see incarcerated people—to get to know them, to hear about their lives—PBP opens a curtain in the mind. What would it look like if the healing of every harm was as nuanced and sophisticated as the stories behind the harm? What if we treated rather than tortured those who make others unsafe? How do we close the revolving prison door, where people exit only to return later?

To use an analogy from health care, I have always preferred to work on curing diseases rather than treating the sick. I like getting to root causes. People who know this about me often ask if I enjoy my work because, in their minds, Prison Book Program isn’t really tackling the root causes of mass incarceration; it’s just sending some books to people. I typically reply that they are correct in one sense but incorrect in another. Sure, PBP is not arguing cases that free people. But it does feel like root-cause work, and here’s why: What we are opposing—with the weight of hundreds of thousands of books—is the dehumanization upon which the prison state depends. I imagine every package that leaves PBP making a quiet but audible sound when it finally arrives safely in the hands of a reader. It is the sound of a small but meaningful “no” to a system that shocks my conscience and infuriates me. Those who request and receive books from PBP confirm that they hear this sound, too. They reply with notes such as the following:

“Your recent shipment of books was above and beyond. I can’t exaggerate, I sincerely felt as if someone had reached out, gave me a hug, told me I still mattered, and said ‘Here, these are for you.’ Admittedly, I didn’t think a group of strangers could make me feel that way.”

“On the receipt there is a message of two or three lines. And that message, plus the choice of books, tells me that someone, somewhere, even briefly, thought of me and what I might like. That makes me remember once having been human.”

“You are appreciated most for treating us as fellow human beings and citizens.”

In this way, the PBP of today can authentically claim to be at least as radical (from the Latin radix, for root) as its founders were in 1972.

Image: Joyce Hankins/Unsplash/Inquest