How to Get Books Into the Hands Of Prison Inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

prisoner book literacy

Young Tyler Fugett from Tennessee recently used his allowance money to buy books for local prisoners, scouring clearance sales at local book stores. The boy, 9, donated more than 100 books to the Montgomery Sheriff’s Office in hopes they would go to the local prison, and has been collecting more, along with toiletry items since then.

Tyler has had a family member in jail, and hoped that reading would help distract his relative and other prisons from bad thoughts and give them other things to think about, help the inmates to not be bored, and to hopefully help change their way of thinking and to find new ways forward.

In many cases, prisoners are also hoping to prepare for re-entry, such as learning new skills, or preparing for their GED.

This is how more of us should be thinking – giving inmates ways to be constructive with their time, to learn, to grow, to change their ways of thinking. To do this, prisoners need resources, which behind bars can be severely limited. Donating books is one way we can make a difference in the lives of those who are incarcerated, as well as working towards reducing recidivism, particularly when jails or prisons can be completely reliant on donations from outside sources, such as the Sheriff’s Office that Tyler donated to.

Books to Prisoners, a Seattle based program, anticipates 13,000 book requests this year alone.

There are many ways to get involved with helping to provide books and other resources to those who are incarcerated. In some cases, you may be able to collect and donate used books as an individual, and in others you may be able to participate as a volunteer or donor to an organization that will act as an intermediary to the specific needs of the prison and inmates. Depending on the program, you may not be able to donate used books, only order new books directly from a bookstore website. Some programs prefer financial donations in lieu of book donations, to ensure that the best options are provided. Others are even looking for donations of stamps.

For example, Books to Prisoners explains its “volunteers interact with inmates by reading their letters, selecting books from [the] collection of donated materials and sending books to inmates in response to their requests. [They] also staff the two lending libraries located in the Champaign, IL County jails.”

Reading With Conviction welcomes donations, which are given to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but books must adhere to specific guidelines, such as being ordered new off of the Amazon Wishlist they provide, or falling into other, very specific categories. In many cases there may be general guidelines, or a preferred list of books.

Some other programs will not accept hardback books, and there may be limitations on certain types of books or themes, such as books with violent covers or images, or technical books that are more than 5 years old. Preferences can include a wide range of recent non-fiction books, as well as fiction, including how-to books for starting small businesses and various trades, personal finance books and foreign language-to-English dictionaries.

It is always best to consult specific program pages and their list of needs and requirements before donating. Whatever you choose to do, your time, money, or gently used or new books will be greatly appreciated by those who are the beneficiaries, and may truly make a difference in their lives both in prison, and after their release. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com