‘Books Through Bars’ Organizes NW Philly Drive

Mary Lee Keane, for the Shuttle

This spring, Northwest Philadelphia is conducting its first large-scale drive to put books into the hands of prisoners thanks to Books Through Bars, a national nonprofit headquartered in West Philly that distributes free books and educational materials to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

The group, which is made up entirely of volunteers, began in 1990 when a prisoner wrote to a small local publishing house asking for free copies of overstock or damaged books. The request was filled, and it led to more requests and ultimately, to the creation of BTB. Almost 30 years later, the group sends, on average, about 2,100 books to about 700 incarcerated people in Pennsylvania and surrounding states each month. And while distributing books is the primary focus, BTB also keeps hundreds of books out of landfills, raises public awareness and gives consultation and guidance to emerging prison book programs.

The upcoming drive, which takes place from May 1-June 30, is focusing on the most requested books, and on those that deal with topics that are requested but not often donated, including dictionaries, self-help books, “how to” books to develop specific skills, and books on criminal law. They’re also looking for texts on African American and Latino history, urban fiction, Islam, astrology/dream interpretation, true crime, fantasy, Wicca and tattoo art. Books can be in English or Spanish, and due to prison regulations, only paperback books can be accepted.

A collection schedule will be announced in early May, with multiple sites in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. Find it on booksthroughbars.org, where you can also sign up to receive a copy of the schedule as soon as it’s announced.

As part of the drive, BTB is looking for volunteers to head up book collections at their school or place of worship. They are also in need of help with staffing collection sites on weekends in May and June. For more information, or to volunteer, email mary@booksthroughbars.org.