Prisoners Literature Project

PLP Volunteer Guidelines

If you’re a first-time Prisoners Literature Project volunteer, you might be interested to find out what you need to do at PLP!

Here’s the guidelines that our co-ordinators will go through in person at the start of each session for newbies:

  1. Prisoners Literature Project has been in existence for over 30 years. We get more than 300 letters every week from U.S. prisoners in need of access to books.
  2. You get to answer the letters & pick out suitable books from our library at the front of Grassroots House. Then you’ll prepare a few things & hand it over to someone else, to package up for mailing.
  3. Your job as a volunteer is to pick out a prisoner letter from the pile in the middle of the round table. Next, look at the city and state on the return address.
  4. You can check the city and state against our restrictions list, which is a large folder sorted by state. Most of our restrictions are based around the number & type of books that we need to send out.
  5. The general rule is that you’re probably going to send out 2 or 3 paperback books. The weight of them – which you can check with the scale in the library – should ideally be under 3lbs in weight.
  6. After you’ve found the restriction info, please write it down on the front of the prisoner envelope. This is because the people packaging the books up will check the restrictions against the books you provided.
  7. Now that you’ve worked out the restrictions, open the letter and see what it says. (We then go through the example letter with the volunteer and make suggestions on what they might want to look for in the library.)
  8. When you go into the library, please ask other people in there if you can’t find specific sections. Pick out something the prisoner really wants.
  9. Please note that there are some sections where we only send out one of each book type due to high demand – e.g. composition books, sci-fi/fantasy, detective novels – but these sections are marked.
  10. If there is a very specific book – such as a sign-language book, book on learning building skills etc – that’s the sole thing asked for, & we don’t have it, we may do a ‘special request’ to get it. Please ask a co-ordinator about this! (Alternatively, we can reply to the prisoner & ask them to send something less specific using our ‘half-sheet’ for exceptions – you can also ask about this.)
  11. Once you’ve picked out the books that you are going to send out and have weighed them, you can come back into the back room. You’ll need four things to package with your books & the original letter – an address label, a receipt/invoice, the PLP’s ‘one sheet’ with our ordering info on it, and the Prisoner Resource guide from PARC.
  12. The PLP ‘one sheet’ can be grabbed from the center rack on the table and is all the info a prisoner needs to know how to order from us & how often. (They may have got our address from a fellow prisoner, so may not know our rules.)
  13. The PARC resource guide is printed by a fellow nonprofit & has all kinds of useful addresses in it for inmates to contact – we always send it out as an extra with our packages if we have a copy.
  14. The address label needs to have the prisoner’s return address written on it clearly in capital letters. The most important elements to get right are the prisoner’s name, inmate number & the PO Box/address of the prison.
  15. Next up, the receipt/invoice needs to have the date, the prisoner’s name and the inmate number written in the correct places on it. You then use the numbered list to specify the name of each book, & cross off any numbers you aren’t using. Finally, write down ‘+ Resource Guide’ at the bottom of the piece of paper just in case anyone thinks the guide is also a ‘book’.
  16. You can write a note to the prisoner on the back of the invoice if you like – that’s strongly encouraged if you just want to say something about the books you picked or otherwise reply.
  17. The best way to arrange all of these is as follows – the ‘one sheet’ and the resource guide folded in half on the bottom of the package, then the books, then the original letter, the invoice & the address label at the top!
  18. Then use two rubber bands to package it all up and hand it over to the packaging table, where a co-ordinator will check your work at least the first time, to make sure it looks great. If so, grab another letter and start all over again!

Finally, as a bonus, we do sometimes use volunteers to package up books, and here’s the instructions that the would need to follow, hurray:

  1. Grab a package of books and remove the two rubber bands! Please grab the original prisoner envelope and look at the restrictions written on the front. Do they match the books you’ve been provided?
  2. You’ll also want to check the address against both the return address on the front of the prisoner envelope & your knowledge of how the postal system works.
  3. Does the prisoner number match up, look sensible, and does the entire address look basically correct and not malformed in some way? (If there’s an issue, either resolve it yourself or find the person who prepared the package to ask them.)
  4. If all of those things check out, you can recycle the prisoner envelope/letter and start packaging everything up.
  5. Use the return address stamp and, before you add any tape, stamp it in the far top left corner of the manila envelope.
  6. Then put tape around the two corners of the manila envelope that are opposite the flap. Cover the corners to stop it ripping in the mail.
  7. Next, use two sets of tape to tape fully over the address label, which should be in the very center of the manila envelope.
  8. Now, put the books into the manila envelope & seal the end up securely with lots of tape. (Note: the alternative is to cut up the envelope and package things up much more ‘Xmas present’-style. Either is acceptable!)
  9. When done, put the package in one of the mail containers and start over at Step 1.

About the Prisoners Literature Project

The Prisoners Literature Project is an inclusive, all-volunteer, grassroots nonprofit whose purpose is to encourage reading, the pursuit of knowledge, and self-determination among incarcerated people. By sending free reading materials to those behind bars, PLP aims to foster learning and critical thinking and help prepare people to lead successful lives after incarceration. We believe that all people have a right to read.

Please consider donating to the PLP or volunteering your time (if you live in the Bay Area, CA!) to help us answer letters from prisoners who write us from all over the United States.

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