By Devina Bhalla
The Prison Book Program has spent almost 50 years with one central mission: providing incarcerated people across the United States with free books from its headquarters in Quincy, Mass.
“This program gives [people in prison] the tools that they need to create the kind of life they want to have after they get out,” Katie Vhay, a volunteer and former board member at the Prison Book Program, said.
Vhay said that her involvement in the program has led her to notice injustices in the American justice system, the underfunding of prison libraries and the long waiting lists for educational programs inside prisons. The program attempts to combat some of these issues and looks to support incarcerated people’s educational, personal, spiritual and vocational development through books. The book packages do not only provide access to educational materials and skills but also provide a form of support and connection.
“We hear from people in prison so often about how meaningful it is for them, not just to get the books but also that the book packages represent a supportive community on the outside of people who are caring about them and thinking about them,” Vhay said.
The Prison Book Program sends packages to incarcerated people in 44 states. In the last five years, the program has expanded its reach, sending around 12,000 packages in 2020 compared to about 6,000 five years before. Though there are certain prisons where the program is more established, Vhay said that the Prison Book Program gets requests from incarcerated people all over the country, with information about the program spreading primarily through word of mouth.
Working out of United First Parish Church in Quincy Center, the program provides donated books to incarcerated people for free and also takes special requests, attempting to give each person that writes to them the specific books they are looking for.
Vhay handles a lot of the special requests, managing its wish lists on Amazon and at two independent bookstores: Porter Square Books and Wellesley Books. When someone asks for a book that isn’t in the program’s book room, Vhay puts that book on the wishlist or reaches out to local community groups that support the program in order to acquire it.
Buying from wish lists at independent bookstores also provides a way to support small businesses in the community in addition to supporting incarcerated people across the country. Vhay commented that the fact that people can support people in prison and local bookstores means a lot to the program.
Moreover, each book often passes through many hands.
“We know that once we send books it goes to the whole community,” Vhay said.
A single donation, therefore, has a great impact on prison communities. Vhay told a story about one man she corresponded with who asked for a book to help him improve his writing to his wife in Spanish. After receiving the book, he wrote back to the program.
“He said that he was studying from the book every single day and that it meant so much,” Vhay said. “It meant so much to him to know that we were supporting him in this way. [He wrote to us saying,] ‘books open doors to a better world. You and your supporters are the key. Thank you again for the undeserved kindness you have demonstrated to me over the years. You’ve helped me to see and know the good in the world and understand that there is the inside of me and that I have value. I am not worthless.’”
This note, Vhay reflected, showed her a dehumanizing and isolating reality of prisons and how receiving books from the program can at the very least help remind incarcerated people of their humanity and worthiness as a human being and that they’re not alone.
The program has had to make many adjustments during the pandemic. For a while, it could not accept any used book donations, which forced it to rely more on the wish lists. Without being able to have volunteers in the building, it also had to change its process. For instance, one volunteer wraps up the package themself instead of an assembly line-like process.
“I’ve personally wrapped up and sent more than a thousand packages to people this past year,” Vhay said.
However, even with COVID-19 restrictions, the program has still been able to maintain operation, continuing to send book packages across the country. Vhay commented on how she believes COVID-19 has made the work even more important.
“It’s been so isolating,” Vhay said. “People haven’t been able to have visits, haven’t been able to see their families and a lot of programs have had to shut down during this time. And we [also] had to cut back … but people were so moved to get the books especially during this time when they weren’t expecting to hear from us.”
Moreover, the pandemic has not stopped the program from receiving support nationally and even internationally. The program used to be entirely volunteer-run, but in the past year it was also able to hire staff through recent donations; the program recently hired an administrator and is currently searching for a managing director.
“We’re definitely in a time of transition and that’s partly because of COVID and partly because of where we are as an organization,” Vhay said. “But we’re really excited for the future and we’re so excited to be able to serve the people that we currently serve better and also be able to reach more people.”
Once COVID-19 concerns lessen, the Prison Book Program is looking forward to bringing the core of the program — the volunteers — back into the building. Vhay said the program looks to continue increasing the number of people it can serve while also potentially adding pen pals or group programming.
With its wide reach and continued programming, the Prison Book Program represents one organization aimed at providing incarcerated people with care and emotional and educational support.
“People in prison know that they can count on the program to be there,” Vhay said. “It’s really meaningful for everyone who is involved.”
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