The Prisoners Literature Project ships tens of thousands of free books each year to inmates around the United States. The Project was founded in the 1980s by grassroots activists working at a San Francisco bookstore. The entire operation, headquartered in Berkeley, California, is staffed by volunteers, who range from young professionals to retirees, librarians, citizens who advocate for the rights of prisoners and others. The type of book most requested: a dictionary. For many inmates, books offer a welcome mental escape from the social isolation, the depressing loss of freedom and just the utter tedium of life behind bars. You’ll hear excerpts from the thousands of moving letters sent by inmates. They also offer a means of self-improvement, especially in an era of reduced educational resources in prisons. Special thanks to Peter Esmonde for his superb help in facilitating our recording.
After sitting here for three hours and reading letters from individual [prisoners], you can’t help but kind of realize that there’s a problem. When you’re receiving a letter from someone who’s saying, ‘I’m serving a 35-year sentence, please send me a rhyming dictionary to help me improve my poetry,’ I mean, something kind of clicks—the humanity of these people, and the absurdity of the situation. I mean, it makes no sense to put someone in a box for 30 years, with no hope of any sort of rehabilitation. I think that’s what drives the vast majority of us who are here [volunteering], the fact that these are people are not being treated like people.”
—Stefanie Ostrowski (Left), Volunteer, pictured with Gina Shepard (Right)