Donate Your Books to Prisons: What, Why, and How

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, January 11th.

This post originally ran September 3, 2015.
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When you research how to donate your books to prisons, the same phrase comes up over and over again: that books are a lifeline for prisoners.

As someone who is fortunate enough that most of my experience with the prison system has happened through Netflix, I took that to mean simply that when you’re in the same small space day after day, it gets boring. But providing prisoners with books offers so much more than relief from monotony.

According to a Baltimore Sun article about Maryland’s prison libraries:

Many who are within a year or two of release use library services to prepare for re-entry — to get their GED, to improve their vocabularies and language skills. The recidivism rate in the United States varies, from 50 percent to as high as 67 percent in some states, and there are two main reasons for that level of failure: the employment challenge facing ex-offenders on the outside and the lack of preparation for re-entry on the inside.

In Maryland, as in most states, re-entry services remain woefully inadequate for the thousands of men and women up for release each year. And given that we don’t invest corrections dollars for better outcomes, the very least we can do is keep the prison libraries well-supplied and adequately staffed. As a knowledge base and information bridge, the prison library is often the only resource the short-timer has.

Prisons are for punishment. Prisons exist to protect the public. But given that so many of their inhabitants eventually get out of them, they should be places of second chances, too.

So many of us have more books than we know what to do with – I know I do. Let’s pass a few of them along to people who need them.

Here’s what you need to know.

What to donate when you donate your books to prisons:

  • Books in reasonable condition. There’s used, and then there’s used.
  • Paperbacks. Many prisons do not allow hardcover books.
  • Graphic novels.
  • Books in Spanish.
  • Books on social movements and liberation struggles.
  • Yoga and fitness.
  • LGBTQ books.
  • Popular fiction.
  • Law books less than 5 years old.
  • Drawing and art books.
  • Fantasy and science fiction.
  • ESL – English as a Second Language books.
  • How-to (especially woodworking, plumbing, car mechanics, small motor repair).
  • Computer books less than 5 years old.
  • American Sign Language (ASL) instruction.
  • Books about starting or running a business.
  • Books about chess.
  • African American Studies.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
  • Test Prep Books – GED, SAT, and similar.
  • Time. Even if you have nothing to give, you can volunteer.
  • Money.
    • Organizations that donate used books need help with postage and supplies. Some organizations focus on buying new books rather than accepting used.
  • Time. Even if you have nothing to spare, you can volunteer.

What not to donate when you donate your books to prisons:

  • Books with spiral bindings.
  • Textbooks more than 5 years old.
  • Religious paraphernalia.
  • Magazines.
  • Books in bad condition.
  • Books with nude photos.
  • Books with written notes and/or highlighting.
  • Anything else forbidden by the organization or prison you donate to. Be sure to check the rules to save volunteers the time it will take to sort through your boxes and weed out what won’t work.

How to donate your books to prisons:

Contact one of these organizations, and they’ll tell you what you need to do. Some collect used books, some accept money to buy new books for prisons, others are looking for volunteers.

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