Books Through Bars has a goal to put themselves out of business.
BTB is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that distributes free books and educational materials to prisoners across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. BTB has a dream that one day incarcerated readers will have enough resources and materials on hand that the organization can cease operations.
We have all heard the phrase “books change lives.” However, this is more than a cliche. Studies show state prisoners who pursue educational opportunities while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison after their release.
BTB conducts innovative programs to promote personal growth, re-integration, and positive change through books. Unfortunately, the program was forced to shut down due to safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, W.W. Norton, publicity director and owner of Freebird Books Peter Miller, found out BTB needed a home base for its collection operations. Freebird’s basement is now serving as a rent-free center for BTB, and the program has been able to pick up where it left off.
To revive book donations, Miller began monthly book drives that led to thousands of donations. The monthly drives involved customers donating discounted three-book sets to inmates. In June, the drive centered on N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. In July, Fratz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, and Malcolm X: Selected Speeches were bundled. August’s monthly drive included a graphic nonfiction bundle featuring John Lewis’s March: Book One, George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, and How to Draw Faces. Following monthly drives included titles on historical perspectives, LGBTQ+ materials, and voices from marginalized communities.
Since restarting in the late spring of 2020, BTB has distributed over 3,000 books to incarcerated readers. One of the most popular title requests sent to BTB are dictionaries. Letters from incarcerated readers show comic books and graphic novels remind inmates of their childhood, and these titles also act as entry points into the educational mission of BTB.
When asked about the impact of opening the basement of Freebird Books to the nonprofit, Miller said, “BTB has raised my awareness of what prisoners have to go through to get books to read. Working with them has transformed me. Books are how we can all escape.”