Why do this?

“Why send free books to prisoners?”

This is a common question we hear. We also hear, “People are in prison to be punished, not read or get handouts.” “There are a lot of people who are more deserving.” “Let’s give books to kids first.”

And, “How can a few books possibly change things?”

We understand why people may have these reservations. Many dedicated BTB volunteers in fact thought the same when they first started. So…why do we do this work?

We’ve spent billions to imprison millions…

Number of U.S. inmates 1920-2006. The general population grew 2.8 times; the number of inmates increased over 20 times.
Number of U.S. inmates 1920-2006. The general population grew 2.8 times; the number of inmates increased over 20 times.

Since 1980, the number of Americans in jail has quintupled, from a little under 500,000 to, in 2011, over 2.2 million.

At present, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Russia is a distant second, followed by Rwanda. We have 5% of the world’s population and 24% of its prison population.

Yet the number people incarcerated bears little relation to the actual rate of crime in the US. Between 1980 and 2008, the rates of both violent and property crime stayed the same, while the prison population skyrocketed.

Much of the growth has occurred because more non-violent offenders are getting locked up, for longer periods of time. (Over half of state prisoners are non-violent offenders.) This is the result of the “war on drugs,” which imposed mandatory minimums and “three-strikes” laws for minor, non-violent drug offenses.

…and paid a steep price.

Putting all these people behind bars has not deterred crime or kept us safer. It has, however

  • Pulled people out of schools and careers, derailing their future prospects
  • Decimated communities—in particular, poor communities of color
  • Locked individuals, families and whole communities into relentless cycles of poverty
  • Drained federal, state and local budgets, resulting in states slashing education spending while increasing prison spending
  • Led to prison overcrowding, poor conditions, stretched budgets, and fewer libraries and educational opportunities for people in prison.

Meantime, the complex social issues that land people in prison to begin with have not been effectively addressed, let alone solved.

This is central to Books Through Bars’s mission: we believe that mass incarceration is not the answer to the issues that lead people to commit crimes.

Books + knowledge…

Nearly 75% of state prison inmates did not complete high school. 65% are dealing with substance abuse or addictions. Roughly half have a serious mental health issue. Years spent behind bars deprives people of formal education and job experience.

Think about it: most people who enter prison eventually leave. Each year hundreds of thousands of individuals return to the streets with the same problems that landed them in there in the first, still unaddressed and often worsened.

The answers to these problems is not imprisonment. It is knowledge.

Studies have overwhelmingly shown that prisoners who become more educated while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison. The free books and correspondence courses provided by Books Through Bars directly address the gap in resources and access to education.

We know our work makes a direct difference to prisoners: hundreds have told us so. At their lowest point, they were given access to knowledge that taught them something new and gave them the power and confidence to change for the better. What they learn—literacy, skills, self-confidence, self-help—changes their lives and the lives of those around them, both behind and outside of bars.

= change. For all.

When volunteers and groups visit BTB, they read letters from incarcerated people. They see that prisoners want the same things they do: education, a job, and hey, a good read. Many times, the simple act of connecting one-on-one with someone who’s in prison challenges stereotypes and changes minds. Volunteers see that prisoners want to use their time “on the inside” to create a better life for themselves and their families when they are released. Volunteers and groups tell us, time and time again, that learning about the issues and sending a book package permanently changes how they view both incarcerated people and the prison system in this country.

We believe that mass incarceration is not only ineffective, but destructive. And we believe that the only way mass incarceration is going to stop is by getting everyone informed and involved, behind and beyond bars.

That’s why our work is essential. It’s why we do what we do. We hope you will join us.

Our dream is to put ourselves out of business.