For prisoners, whether in your local jail or in state or federal prison, a book may be the only thing that keeps them sane. The ability to learn a new language, about history, or just to travel to other worlds, can help engage a mind and prevent it from spiraling into depression and despair.
There are many organizations, including Foreword Reviews, that donate books to prisoners. One nonprofit that’s been doing it since 1973 is a Seattle-based group called, simply, Books to Prisoners. Joan Lehmiller Ross, a board member at Books to Prisoners, recently talked to me on our special IndieVoices podcast episode dedicated to criminal justice reform. Listen to the entire interview here, or read some of the highlights below.
On the types of books prisoners prefer.
Things which are engaging and things which are escapist. Anything that has word games, anything that is a book that you “fill out,” so to speak, is requested pretty much constantly. Sudoku, crosswords, things of that ilk. And, in terms of actual literature, they most often request westerns, fantasy, and sci-fi because, well, we feel it’s because it’s the most escapist, it’s the thing that will most let you take yourself away from where you are right now.
We get a huge number of requests for dictionaries, especially Spanish-to-English dictionaries due to the highly disproportionate number of Hispanic immigrants who are locked up in prison.
On the types of books prison wardens do no prefer.
First, there’s the federal restrictions, which include, “No fighting instructions. No provocative content.” Fairly sensible things. That being said, every prison also has its own personal restrictions. Many of them don’t allow hardcover books, many of them only allow books in pristine condition. A lot of them don’t allow books except directly from the publisher.
Often the wardens at a prison will have somewhat more personalized requirements. I believe there was a prison in Philadelphia which banned any books involving dogs. I don’t know why. There are also prisons in Texas which literally destroyed a number of fiction novels that we sent them because they were focused around lesbians. Texas is not big on LGBTQ content. We’ve also had books rejected for containing evolution, which is distressing to say the least.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy