Frequently Asked Questions – Prisoners Literature Project
Answers to some commonly asked questions about the Prisoners Literature Project and our work:
1) What exactly is the Prisoners Literature Project?
The Prisoners Literature Project (PLP) is an all-volunteer non-profit group that provides free books to prisoners across the United States. We’ve been doing this work for about thirty years. Though PLP volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, we all believe that everyone — regardless of their situation — should have the right to read and try to educate themselves.
We also try to create a fun, respectful, and positive experience for all our volunteers. Many PLP volunteers just come by on Wednesdays and Sundays to read prisoners’ book requests, choose appropriate books for them, and pack the titles for shipping via USPS. Some are regulars; others only drop by occasionally. (Here’s what we look like on volunteering days.)
A small subset of PLP volunteers — the coordinators — makes sure the lights stay on and the shelves are always stocked; we also pinch-hit for each other as needed.
2) Where do the books come from?
The vast majority of our titles are donated by the general public. If we can’t use a donated book, we’ll trade it in for a title we can send to a prisoner. We also use your money to buy certain ‘special request’ books at times. The PLP also relies on a lot of dedicated bookhunters and bibliophiles that scour library sales, Goodwill shelves, and dusty back rooms here in the San Francisco Bay Area for inexpensive, thought-provoking books.
3) What kinds of books do you send most often?
We send books that help prisoners with their language and vocational skills, and inform them about history and culture. We also send a lot of entertaining, ‘classic’ modern fiction. Our most requested books:
dictionaries (including English, Spanish/English, American Sign Language);
how-to books (e.g.: how to draw, how to start a small business, home construction, electrical wiring, plumbing, bookkeeping . . . even farming and beekeeping); and
African-American, Latino, and Native American history, culture, and literature.
4) Why don’t you send many mysteries, romances, Westerns, sci-fi, or horror?
[UPDATE: We do now send out limited amount of some of these genres, particularly mysteries and sci-fi – but we try to pick the best of the genres, as noted below.] We have very limited shelf space and budget — we work out of a one-room office — and would rather use our resources to send more thought-provoking books. Often we’ll send a ‘classic’ that also conforms to a genre category. For example, if a prisoner requests a science fiction book, we may send them a copy of Fahrenheit 451 or Slaughterhouse-Five. If they request horror, they may receive Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We screen out racist, sexist, and homophobic titles.
5) If I make a donation to the PLP, where does my money go?
We work on a shoestring budget: Everyone is a volunteer; no one is paid. Funds go to pay postage; what’s left is used to purchase discounted books that we always run low on (dictionaries, how-to titles, and others), as well as mailing and office supplies & pay our (minimal) rent at Grassroots House. We run a tight ship — and greatly appreciate anything you give.
6) Is the Prisoners Literature Project registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization?
Grassroots House — the community center where we have our office — also serves as our non-profit sponsor, so your donations are tax deductible via them.
7) Why do all your book orders go through Bound Together Books?
Prisoners are only allowed to receive books from “authorized vendors” — that is, bookstores and selected online sellers. The Prisoners Literature Project started in the back room of San Francisco’s Bound Together Books, which still serves as our authorized vendor. Prisoners’ book requests must go through Bound Together Books.