Books Through Bars

Books Through Bars

What: Books Through Bars is a volunteer-run organization that provides books and other reading material to prisoners. Every month Books Through Bars receives around 1,300 letters from inmates requesting books and the organization sends out an average of 900 packages—with 3 to 4 books in each. Books Through Bars also serves prison libraries, supplying them with regular donations of books.

Where: 4722 Baltimore Avenue in the A-Space.

Why: Because, says volunteer leader Lindsay Liprando, “Many people in prison have not had quality educational opportunities throughout their life and a lot of studies have shown there’s a big corollary between incarceration and level of education. The lower it is, the more likely someone is to end up in prison.” Many prisoners, she says, take it upon themselves to become more educated while incarcerated. But, she says, “oftentimes, they can’t. The array of programming in prisons is varied. Some have good programs on a variety of subjects but many do not. People who write to us often say their classes have long waiting lists. Sometimes they can enroll in a class but can’t take a book back to their cell to study.” Some prisons lack libraries, she says, and for prisoners in isolation even if there is a library, they can’t get to it.

Where do the books come from? “A lot of them are donated by people in the community,” says Liprando. “We partner with different churches and other religious organizations who collect books for us. Schools will donate textbooks if they’ve replaced them with newer versions.” Penn has also played an active role, with regular book drives.

What are the most requested books? Dictionaries, says Liprando, consistently top the most-wanted list of book requests. “We think that’s because if people are trying to educate themselves but are not sure how to begin, a dictionary is something they know about,” says Liprando. Also popular: African and African-American history and fiction, books in Spanish and books on drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. “Books about yoga and meditation to help people relax are also very in demand,” says Liprando.

Which books are the hardest to get? “We get a lot of novels donated to us, but dictionaries are pretty tough,” says Liprando. “Most people buy one and keep it for 20 or 30 years.”

How can Penn folks get involved? You can stop by to volunteer or drop off donations at A-Space, 4722 Baltimore Avenue (free parking lot next door) on Tuesdays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and on the first and third Saturdays of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. To find out what books are needed, go to and click on “Resources” and then the “For Volunteers and Partners” link.

What you’ll be asked to do: Liprando says she normally starts novices out reading letters from prisoners and then searching through the library to try to match up books with requests.

Originally published on April 26, 2007