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Giving Tuesday: Literacy in Prison
December 1, 2019

What is Giving Tuesday?

I love Giving Tuesday. For those of you who might not be familiar with the annual event, Giving Tuesday takes place every year following Black Friday and Cyber Monday—obviously, on the Tuesday directly after. Giving Tuesday encourages folks to donate to a charity of their choice on a day following a spell of big retail money-making days.

Giving Tuesday lands on December 3rd, 2019 this year and marks the eighth year the event has run. I’ve taken part since 2013.

Okay, tell me why I should care about prison literacy.

As of 2018, about 39,000 people are serving time in Canadian prisons and 203,000 people are in Mexican prisons. As of 2019, 84,000 people are in prison in the United Kingdom while the United States prison system is responsible for a population of over 2 million.

There is a strong link between crime and illiteracy:

  • 60% of inmates are functionally illiterate
  • Over 70% of American inmates are unable to read above a fourth-grade level
  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at Level 5

There is one statistic that stands out to me the most, and it has not gone unnoticed by the charities and non-profits I list below.

If an inmate does not receive help with literacy while in prison but is released, there is a 70% they will return to prison. However, if the inmate does receive literacy assistance, that rate drops to 16%.

With a statistic like that, one would think prisons would be throwing as many books at prisons as humanly possible. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Prison libraries are regularly not provided with enough resources and reading and literacy are sometimes not encouraged within these institutions. Some prisons have incredibly strict rules about what books can be brought into the institutions and some occasionally reject all book donations.

(Some institutions are also making prisoners purchase overpriced ebooks instead of accepting book donations, but that’s a whole other issue.)

If you’d like to learn more about prisons and their weird rules for accepting book donations, I highly recommend you check out the two-part podcast episode BookRiot/Annotated produced on the subject.

What can non-profits and charities do to help?

I reached out to a few non-profits and charities relating to literacy in prison to see how their organizations can help.

Books Inside founder Toby Lafferty

Books Inside

Website | Serves the United States | Based in Utah


How does your organization help?

The immeasurable value of education and literacy in prisons is challenging to convey. They could be the single most important factors in keeping 2.3 million people’s minds alive in one of the most difficult situations our society subjects people to. Consider 24 hours a day for years locked in a cell with minimal contact with an outside world and a close to unvarying schedule. How does one sustain that degree of monotony much less how does a person develop and evolve as a human being?

Books, to people incarcerated, are lifelines to learning, to the outside world, to relief from the oppression of the environment. They provide a respite for the mind. Many people study subjects of interest and learn new languages. They read to develop skills, for self-improvement and understanding. Books provide hope and possibility.

Reading itself, no matter what a person chooses, improves the ability to read—an invaluable acquisition.

Books Inside sent 17,000 books to prisons in 2018. Most went to the approximately 40 prison/jail libraries we work with to build up and maintain their collections.

Our boxes hold 40-50 books. We send the types that the facility requests and mail once a month to once every 6 months as they choose. Over time, the libraries often become self-sustaining.


By the Numbers

The average reading level in prisons is estimated to be at and below the fourth grade.

Obviously an impossible number to know, however, a popular paperback book in a prison could be read 500 times.

Some facilities have excellent browsing libraries (for example Utah State Prison In Draper has 6 libraries and about 55,000 volumes—new books continually rotating with those worn). In other places space may be limited giving people access only to book carts. Some prisons have no books at all.



How has the organization evolved?

Until 2 years ago we worked solely with prison/jail libraries. In 2017, 2,000 unopened letters from individuals in 160 prisons in 26 states were “dropped on our doorstep.” That rather large mail delivery slowly but radically expanded the project. In addition to libraries, we now send about 40 educational books a month to individuals and write hundreds of letters—encouraging, educating, problem-solving, getting to know—however, mostly providing human contact and lifelines to the outside. We have found that loss of contact and the severe isolation of prison is one of the most debilitating aspects of being incarcerated.

One of the unique aspects of the project is the way we’re expanding. A year and a half ago we teamed up with Fountain Pen Education (no website yet) that provides people in prison with individualized assistance in developing reading and writing skills—from the most basic to skills for people interested in publishing. The day to day work still focuses on getting books to libraries and individuals, however, through the correspondences, we’ve developed closer connections. Some people are in prison for painfully long sentences. However, many are released and we’re now maintaining those connections and helping as individuals make the wonderful and terrifying transition back into society—finding places to live, completing paperwork, getting jobs, reestablishing past relationships and forging new ones.


Why should folks donate to your organization?

Books Inside operates only on donations. We pay no staff and our expenses, primarily postage, continues to increase. More facilities and people inside are contacting us and between available person-hours and cost, we have a limit to what we reasonably choose to take on. (We have a tendency to push that limit.) Every contribution helps us. $15 mails a box of books. 55 cents sends a letter. Volunteers, many, in all sorts of ways, in all different places are the life-blood. They keep the wheels turning and the possibilities open.

We look to a future when the number of people incarcerated in our country declines dramatically, when the many successful programs for rehabilitation become the norm, and when strong and healthy individuals are welcomed back to a society appreciative of the value that each person has to offer.

Women’s Prison Book Project

Website | Serves the United States | Based in Minneapolis

How does your organization help?

The women’s prison book project has been sending books and journals to cis and transgender women in prisons across the country since 1994 (25 years!). We do our best to fulfill specific book requests from our library of used books and we purchase some books to fulfill the most sought after requests or special book needs. Our most popular book requests are dictionaries and journals. We hold mailings every Sunday from 12 pm to 3 pm at Boneshaker Books where our volunteers fulfill book orders from our shelves of used books.

By the Numbers

We send approximately 5000 packages a year containing three books or 15,000 books per year. We get 50 to 100 letters every week from women in prison requesting books.


From the WPBP Facebook page

Why is it important to focus on women in prison instead of the general prison population?

Book projects that primarily serve men’s prisons do not tend to have the books women and transgender individuals are asking for. We have books about surviving domestic and sexual violence, parenting, women’s health, transgender fiction and nonfiction, lesbian topics, women in recovery, etc.


Why should folks donate to your organization?

We are an all-volunteer organization so donations to us go far. Your money helps us pay for postage, mailing supplies, books, and a place to store our library and hold our weekly mailings. Since all of our funding needs to go to operations, we are not eligible for most grants and depend on individual donors for our budget.


Book Clubs for Inmates

Website | Serves Canada | Based in Toronto


How does your organization help?

BCFI organizes and administers volunteer-led book clubs in Canadian federal penitentiaries, helping inmates develop empathy, listening skills, and self-awareness while incarcerated. Eventually, most inmates re-enter society. The skills they learn in our book clubs improve their employment options and help them become productive citizens in our communities.

Group discussion is mediated by community volunteers, who guide conversation into themes such as identity, adversity, forgiveness, and resilience—and how these themes relate to the inmates’ lives. The book clubs encourage positive change through the power of literature.

The book clubs help inmates develop pro-social skills, such as respectful listening and speaking. As inmates read and discuss literature, they also develop stronger reading and communication skills. All of these together help them make meaningful life changes, and upon release, reintegrate more successfully back into the community.

From the BCFI Facebook page

BCFI has program called ChIRP (inmate-child reading programs) in a number of federal institutions. We have 5 groups running in Ontario and hope to open 3 more each year, expanding across the country. Volunteers go into the prisons with children’s books. The incarcerated parent/grandparent reads one of the books chosen for the child into a recording device, and the volunteer then later burns this to a CD and mails along with the book to the child. This program attempts to keep the incarcerated parent and child connected, and encourages the child to read.

Finally, BCFI supports academically able incarcerated men and women who wish to pursue post-secondary education. We fund a group of professors in Edmonton who offer one-on-one courses to these students either in person (in AB) or through a parole office in the institution (outside AB). We are currently supporting 13 inmates studying for degrees.

By the Numbers

We have 36 book clubs in 24 federal institutions across Canada and two halfway houses.

In a 2015 survey of book club members, 85% reported that their participation in the book club improved their reading skills; 90% reported that their communication skills had improved; 93% stated that book clubs can help to prevent inmates from reoffending, and 86% saw the book clubs as a place to participate in civil discussions and hear new points of view.

What makes it unique among related organizations?

Book Clubs for Inmates is the only organization of its kind in Canada. With the support of Corrections Canada, we are able to bring essential educational and social programming into federal institutions that help inmates connect with one another and improve social skills. Our programming is expanding across Canada so rapidly that often when an inmate moves from one institution to another, they can expect to find and join a book club at their next institution. We purchase thousands of books each year for our book clubs and help connect inmates with new fiction and nonfiction books. When members finish with their books, they often share them with friends inside or give them to the prison library for others to read.

Why should folks donate to BCFI?

It is our mission to start a book club in every level of every federal institution in Canada. Canada’s inmate population is a marginalized group that becomes socially isolated and ignored as a result of their incarceration. When inmates are not supported adequately in their rehabilitation process, the likelihood of re-offense upon release increases, further marginalizing them. The Literacy and Policing Project reports that prison-based education programs (such as our book clubs) help increase rates of successful rehabilitation. They note that prison literacy programs can reduce the potential of re-offense by up to 30%. Having gained stronger literacy skills in prison, inmates can often approach job searches and employment with more confidence and will possess the skills needed to succeed in a steady job.

Many of the institutions we work in have lengthy waitlists of inmates eager to join a book club. We have inmates moving from one institution to another expecting to find a book club wherever they go. We have the opportunity to expand our programming to every level of every federal institution, but we need your help! Your donation goes directly to our biggest expense – helping us purchase new books for our book club members each year.

A Few More Prison Literacy Organizations

Sources and Links of Interest

Related Posts


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Jillianne Hamilton writes delightful historical fiction and historical romance featuring rebellious ladies and happy endings.

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