Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In A Basement On Columbia Street, Books Through Bars Volunteers Help Bridge Gap Between The Incarcerated And The “Free” World

NYC Books Through Bars volunteers wrapping books to ship out IMG_0243
Members of the NYU chapter of Alpha Phi Omega
Volunteer Bruce McDonald held several Dictionary Drives in Carroll Park
Bruce McDonald with some of the dictionaries he helped collect for the organization
Letter recently received by Books Through Bars

Twice, and sometimes thrice a week, a group of NYC Books Through Bars volunteers gather to wrap, weigh and address packages in the slightly cramped, dusty basement of Freebird Books at 123 Columbia Street.  The packages contain books from the many donations lining the basement's shelves, which have been carefully matched to a specific request from an incarcerated individual.   The volunteers represent a range of political opinions and different beliefs about the American prison system, but are united in their conviction that reading material is a human right and that individuals in prison should have access to decent educational reading material.

NYC Books Through Bars got started in Manhattan about twenty years ago.  The organization moved to the Columbia Waterfront District about four years ago, when Freebird owner Peter Miller made his downstairs space available to the organization.  Every week, BTB receives about 200 to 300 letters from incarcerated individuals.  The organization can fulfill most of the requests and more than 100 to 150  packages are shipped out to forty states weekly.
"Every letter gets a response, even if only to refer the individual to a similar organization that may cover a state that BTB does not," Daniel Schaffer, one of the group's organizers told me. "If we can not send an exact title in response to a request, we try to substitute a similar book."

Melissa Marturano, a fellow coordinator, explained that the number of letters to BTB highlights how sorely underfunded prison education is and how understocked their libraries are. "The most requested books are English-language dictionaries, mysteries, books on how to start a business, and on African-American history, " according to Marturano.  "Individuals behind bars have no access to computers.  They don't have e books," she explained.  Books provide opportunities to improve vocabulary and literacy as well as connection to the outside world.

I was first introduced to Books Through Bars by my friend Bruce McDonald, who is a fellow member of Friends of Carroll Park.  Bruce has organized several Dictionary Drives in Carroll Park and has collected over 100 dictionaries for BTB in just over a year.
Recently, while volunteering for the group, Bruce came across a request for a book in Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria. (Read the letter above).  With funds provided by Friends of Carroll Park, Bruce purchased a Yoruba dictionary online and sent it off to Victor, who had asked for it.

If you would like to donate books to NYC Books Through Bars, here are some guidelines:
- Softcovers only, please
- Nothing with excessive highlighting or underlining
- Dictionaries (all languages) are the number one request we receive
- Mass market paperbacks and trade paperbacks are also in very high demand, especially mystery, action/thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, westerns
- How-to guides for all sorts of vocations, skills, and careers, as well as GED and other test prep books
- Non-fiction titles in the categories of true crime, world and US history, ethnic studies (esp. South/Central/Mezo-American), supernatural/occult, and biography

Books can be dropped off at Freebird (123 Columbia Street) during one of the volunteer packing sessions, which are every Sunday from 2:00-5:00 and Mondays from 7:30-9:30 (and occasional Wednesdays.  Check the calendar here.

Though books are always welcomed, money for postage is crucial to Books Through Bar's mission.
Please consider a contribution here.

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