Books Through Bars is a all-volunteer collective started by the Nightcrawlers Anarchist Black Cross, and the group’s single goal is to donate free books to the incarcerated. Prisoners write in with requests, and three nights a week, during packing sessions, volunteers scour the bulging shelves of donated books to fill those requests. The group attracts a diverse variety of volunteers—from hipsters to activists to teachers—all of whom are united under the belief that literacy and access to reading material is a human right. Currently housed in the basement of Freebird Books, BTB has been in several previous donated spaces, including a NYCANH building and ABC No Rio before that. Their only cost is postage, and they hold lots of events, like movie screenings, game nights, and music and art shows, to raise funds to cover that expense.
Last summer I volunteered at BTB about once a week. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience, with a consistent, tangible feeling of accomplishment every time you find a book that you know is just what a particular person is looking for. So go help out this terrific organization! Donate some books, volunteer at a packing session, or have fun at an event. But first, check out my interview with collective members Joe and Danny.
brooklyn spaces: How do the prisoners find out about the organization?
Joe: Word of mouth spreads really easily. People in prison are kind of starved for companionship, you know?
brooklyn spaces: Do you get a lot of strange letters?
Danny: Some of the strangest are not from prisoners but from prison officials. We recently had Freud for Beginners rejected by the state of California because it “depicts nudity in such a way as to create the appearance that sexual conduct is imminent.”
brooklyn spaces: Do you get a lot of return letters from the prisoners? Do people write back to say thanks for the books?
Joe: Yeah, we get thank you letters all the time. I often write letters to people that I slip into the books. There was someone I wrote to—I’m a Satanist, and so is he, and I sent him all these Satanic books. And as a thank you, he sent me an ink imprint of his hand with the Sigil of Baphomet on it, and it had flecks of his blood, saliva, and semen. It’s framed and hanging on my wall.
Danny: I have one of his drawings on my wall too.
Joe: Another guy I developed a correspondence with, I ended up calling the prison for him to get him medical treatment he’s been denied, and I’ve even spoken to his mother. He got out recently, and he called to thank me for everything I did. I think it’s really unfortunate for the incarcerated when the human element gets lost.
brooklyn spaces: What are the most common types of books requested?
Danny: A lot of African American history, Spanish dictionaries, educational stuff, like math and science.
brooklyn spaces: I remember one letter asking for books on fixing cars, and I thought that was so heartbreaking. I’m sure the prisoners probably have no access to cars.
Joe: The ones that make me cry are the ones that are barely legible, where you can tell this person has a child’s reading level, and it’ll be like, “Please send books on dinosaurs.” Like putting this person in a cage is doing the world so much fucking good, right? These folks have no access to real literature. I do a debate program in Rikers with the youth, which was started by a Books Through Bars member, and I’ve seen the libraries there. There’s basically shitty pulp and the bible, and that’s it. And this is New York, I can only imagine how bad it is elsewhere.
brooklyn spaces: I know BTB wasn’t always in Brooklyn, but do you think Brooklyn has influenced the space in any way? Do you feel like being in Brooklyn is a good fit?
Danny: It wasn’t Brooklyn for the sake of Brooklyn. After we left the NYCAH space, we had two options, and both happened to be in Brooklyn.
Joe: There’s a lot of gentrifying scum and hipsters around Brooklyn, and I guess that’s why it’s good to have this here, because the wealthy and liberal-leaning youth are all about Brooklyn. As someone who’s from Brooklyn—one of the last people from Brooklyn who’s in Brooklyn—it makes me a little angry, but hopefully if this article gets out and people read it, the privileged scum who see fit to displace the members of my community might come down to volunteer, or, better yet, give us some of their parents’ fucking money.