I recently slipped through a sidewalk cellar door to enter the basement of Freebird Books, a large space crammed with books organized into different sections, where I spent the evening reading letters from prison inmates and selecting and packaging books for them. At least twice a week, volunteers go through the 700-800 letters NYC Books Through Bars, a collective based in New York City, New York, receives from inmates every month and fulfill their requests.
It's a team effort. Founded 21 years ago, the group seeks to provide "humanitarian outreach to people who are incarcerated," says Daniel Schaffer, a coordinator at the organization. All books are donated, as are the brown bags used as packaging — the only expenses are postage and tape. The organization is always looking for volunteers. Freebird Books allows the group to use their basement for free. Bluestockings, a collectively-owned radical bookstore that's also based in New York City, serves as the group's official mailing address because many prisons mandate that books be sent directly from a bookstore or publisher. Another local bookstore, Greenlight Bookstore, maintains a wish list on their website of books requested by inmates.
Books help alleviate isolation and empower inmates for re-entry. NYC Books Through Bars sends books directly to prisoners because it doesn't want to supplant the library services that prisons should provide. Still, inmates often share the books with others on the inside. Inmates reach through the distance by sharing their thoughts in the letters they've sent to the group: