Intellectual Freedom Fighters, Part 3: Books to Prison Organizations


By: Kelly Bilz

In Intellectual Freedom Fighters, a five-part series, I hope to draw attention to organizations who are either extraordinary or unique in their efforts to preserve and protect intellectual freedom. These organizations might have drawn my attention due to their specific focus within intellectual freedom, their successes, or their extreme measures. This third part’s highlight belongs to prison libraries and books to prison organizations.


Why My Face Lights Up When I Hear “San Quentin”

Maybe, like me, you’ve been checking Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts) since January 16 to see if there’s a new episode of Ear Hustle, a podcast from inside San Quentin State Prison. Its co-host, the inimitable Earlonne Woods, was released from the prison last November after 21 years of incarceration, and though I’m desperate for that next episode (set to drop in June), I don’t begrudge Woods the time he needs to celebrate his release, be with his family, and get re-acclimated to the world outside. And it’s not like he hasn’t been busy with other interviews, or even meeting the governor of California, Jerry Brown, who commuted his sentence.

Maybe, like me, your only other frame of reference for what prison life is like comes from Shawshank Redemption. While, as a prospective librarian, I have to love Andy’s letter-writing campaign and expansion of the prison library, I know that Stephen King’s fictional representation of a 1950s prison does not have much bearing on what prisons are like today. Ear Hustle’s objective to show what life inside San Quentin is like, and they clarify at several points that San Quentin is not like other prisons–if you’re incarcerated, San Quentin is the prison you want to be at, or where you go if you’re on your way out. There are more opportunities, resources, and programs there, too. How many other prisons have a podcast and an inmate-run newspaper?

According to Episode 16: Catch a Kite 2 (their Q&A episode), the question they are asked the most is about books. San Quentin, like many other prisons, has a library, but it’s not the open-stacks, inmate-run Shawshank library. Do you remember the scene where a character mispronounces Alexandre Dumas’s name? That’s not how it would happen today.


The Low-Down on Prison Libraries

Black-and-white photo of empty rows of prison cell blocks.Full disclosure, I have never worked in a prison library. Everything I talk about here comes from Ear Hustle, the Mars Room, The Man Who Came Uptown, or blog posts by prison librarians. Every prison library is different, depending on the institution, state regulations, funding for services, etc. So this description is general and may not apply to every prison.

Generally, prison libraries are closed stacks, meaning patrons cannot browse through the shelves freely to find books/other materials to check out. Patrons go up to a desk, tell the librarian or staff member what they want to check out, and the library/staff member grabs the materials for them. (Archives/special collections in the outside work the same way.) Typically, inmates can check out two books at a time.

Depending on the library’s resources, there may also be programs for inmates to discuss books. This might be an education program, focused on earning GEDs or other certificates, or it could be a straightforward book club. (Side note, in all the books/articles I’ve read, John Steinbeck has come up the most, particularly Of Mice and Men.)

Since it is prison, there are, predictably, more rules, in addition to the two-book limit and closed stacks. Books are more likely to be censored for overly sexual/violent content, and since they are passed around so often, books are often seen as a way to pass around contraband. When you donate books to prisons, make sure to read the guidelines–your hardcover books probably won’t make the cut.

Also, I should include that there are other ways books get to prisons. First, friends and relatives send books (or send in money to buy books) to the person on the inside. Inmates can even buy books on their own, if the vendor is approved, and if they can raise the money. On the Catch a Kite episode I mentioned earlier, Earlonne Woods estimated that it would take him a month to earn the $24 required to order a book, on just his prison salary. Which is to say, libraries are important, inside and outside of prison, to provide free access to books, whether for information or entertainment.


What Kinds of Books Do Prison Libraries Need?

One of my favorite moments on Ear Hustle comes from the Catch a Kite episode, when Kevin, an inmate at San Quentin, talks about his list, the running tally of the 371 books he has read in prison since his arrest in 1996. (It’s actually upward of 385 now, but it was 371 at the time of the episode.) His list not only attests to the importance and value of prison libraries, but it also reveals what kinds of books people read in prison. (He recommends The New Jim Crow.)

Many books to prison organizations specify what their current needs are, so it’s a good idea to see what’s in demand before clearing out your bookshelves. Generally, there is a need for materials related to African American studies, women’s health, LGBTQ+ studies, trades, puzzle books, Spanish-language books, test prep, and dictionaries.


Why It Matters

Maybe you’ve noticed that prison libraries are much more vulnerable to having their access limited. Book donations have been banned, in Pennsylvania and more recently, Washington this year. In both those cases, the ban was eventually overturned, but prison library books are always subject to suspicion. Why? Because they are thought to hide contraband or smuggle drugs. That possibility–and it does happen–is often provided as the reason for these bans, but whether those claims are actually justified is a topic for another day.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Inmates can get books from the outside, they can buy books, they have these libraries–why is this such a big deal? This isn’t smuggling flash drives into a dictatorship. How are they intellectual freedom fighters?” Even with prison libraries, it’s hard to ensure actual access to these books. In New York City, a bill that allowed all prisoners access to the library faced opposition. Even if book donations are safe, some parts of the prison population (there’s general general population, administration segregation, death row, the infirmary…) may not have access to the library. Further, correctional officers may be hesitant to allow that access due to security risks. There are many more obstacles in place, so for fighting to uphold library values and the right to information in difficult conditions, prison libraries and books to prison organizations are intellectual freedom fighters.

Also, inmates are some of your local library’s best patrons. Yes, that’s right, your local library, the one on the Outside, in the Free World. If inmates have this much trouble getting books, imagine how much trouble they have getting access to the internet. The most reliable form of communication in prison is writing letters, so many inmates send what would otherwise be their Google searches to the public library–apparently at a rate of 60 per week for the San Francisco Public Library.

Prisons are home to plenty of literary activity. Many inmates write their own books, like Nico Walker’s Cherry, and there are multiple programs bringing Shakespeare to prison. (To mention yet another podcast, one such performance of Hamlet was the subject of an episode of This American Life.)


How Can I Donate? And Recommended Reading


Someone’s hand taking book off of library bookshelf.

The ALA provides a list of different books to prisons organizations, and Ear Hustle’s website provides instructions for donating to San Quentin specifically. Remember that rules vary by state and institution, and read through the different resources to see if there’s one whose mission sticks out to you. Maybe you have a Spanish-language collection or want to provide more LGBTQ+ materials to prisons, which can often be a homophobic environment

The weak point of my research is that it focuses on men’s prisons (except for the Mars Room, which actually focuses on a GED class, not a library). If you want to do some research of your own on prison libraries, here are some more websites:

Maybe, unlike me, you’re trying to KonMari your lifestyle, or you’re finally clearing your bookshelves of all the books you had to read in high school or college. Maybe you’ve given up on trying to read all of Kafka or James Baldwin, or you’re trading in some of your Harry Potter for the new illustrated versions (how magical!). Regardless, you could give all the books away to friends, or donate them to a public library or used bookseller–all of those are good options!–but if you have soft-cover books, spare dictionaries, or test prep/ESL materials lying around, you could do a lot of good.

As Earlonne Woods says at the end of each episode, in-dubitably.


Kelly BilzKelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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