2005, GeoClan.com spoke
Hirshkowitz a volunteer for Books Through
Bars, an organization that looks to help
those many forget about: prisoners!
complain about things not changing for
the better but what needs to be done doesn't
stop outside the gates! If you want to
prevent people from coming back into society
and doing the same thing that got them
incarcerated then they need the right
to learn and grow like all of us (should)
What exactly is Books Through Bars and
how did this organization come to be?
Hirshkowitz of Books Through Bars (BB):
Books Through Bars was started by one
of the New Society Publishers around 1990.
He was interested in prison stories, especially
those involving nonviolence and was corresponding
with prisoners, sending them NSP books
that were slightly damaged and could not
be sold. He placed an advertisement in
PEN magazine and was swamped by letters
from people in prison requesting every
sort of book imaginable. Fortunately some
people in the neighborhood had worked
with Prison Book Program in Seattle and
gave him a rundown of how to put a group
together. They started meeting once a
month at the newly formed A-Space at 4722
What is your role and what does it entail?
I'm a member of the collective, an unusual
structure for a 501c(3) nonprofit organization.
And we are an all-volunteer organization
so although I have a fair amount of responsibility
for governing and managing the organization
I don't receive any compensation and my
voice is one among many. I currently am
the treasurer which involves both keeping
day to day accounts of the money, paying
bills, etc as well as preparing draft
budgets and educating new members about
also curate a collection of work by artists
in prison, communicating with them, soliciting
art work, organizing exhibits, doing publicity,
hanging the shows, etc.
Whom does the organization serve (how
far across the country and internationally)
and how do you receive support and funds
to keep this vital endeavor afloat?
We serve people in prison throughout the
United States. We receive about 1500 letters
with book requests each month. BTB sends
educational material to people in federal,
state and some county facilities. We also
work with half way houses in the Philadelphia
area. In addition we work with groups
in Philadelphia, and the general public
with our art shows, to create a broader,
more thoughtful dialog about incarceration
in the United States.
our mission statement:
believe a society of social and economic
inequality leads to a cycle of crime and
incarceration. We work to reverse the
dehumanizing effects excessive punishment
inflicts upon individuals, families and
communities. Books Through Bars sends
quality reading material to prisoners
and encourages creative dialog on the
criminal justice system, thereby educating
those living inside and outside our prison
receive money from grants, we do an appeal
to our mailing list each year, and we
have a website and we do fundraising events
throughout the year: a read-a-thon, a
pack-a-thon and a house party. We also
receive money and books from friends and
family and a small amount of money and
stamps from people in prison.
What restrictions to do have and why
does it seem that government that runs
the prisons are making it harder for inmates
to receive books?
Prisons claim that security is an issue
with incoming books and sometimes that
might be true although we have sent tens
of thousands of packages over 15 years
and not caused any problems. Each prison
has different restrictions that we attempt
to kept track including: no hard covers,
no books, no magazines, no used books,
no photocopies, no newspapers, no dictionaries,
no art supplies.
are also many restrictions on prisoner's
ability to go to the library and receive
packages. Everything in prison can be
used as a tool of punishment. We do work
with prison libraries but prefer to work
directly with individuals.
What are the most frequently requested
The most frequently requested book is
a dictionary, followed closely by a Spanish
English dictionary, followed by a law
dictionary. Next are requests for material
on African American, Native American and
Latino studies materials; GED, basic educational
materials in grammar and math, vocational
training, chess, yoga and books in Spanish.
How did you personally get involved?
I became involved when all the
founding members were leaving town. Either
someone from NSP got involved or it folded.
Fortunately two of the NSP people were
willing to help (myself and another woman)
and in 1994 we began growing the organizational
structure and ability to be self-sustaining
as an organization.
What is the response from the inmates,
parents, loved ones and other factions
of society you encounter as you and the
organization does its work?
We have built many good relationships
with inmates and family members and loved
ones. They are overwhelmingly grateful
that we exist as most prisons do not allow
anyone to send books in--material must
come from a publisher or bookstore (requiring
money) or a prison book program.
Are there other national and international
organizations like yours and how can someone
volunteer and/or become locally involved?
There are about 25 programs like our in
the United States and Canada. I don't
know about any programs abroad. We have
a list serve and in 2003 Books Through
Bars, Philadelphia hosted a weekend conference
for all the organizations in North America.
About 18 different organizations were
present. We cooperate as we can but are
independently organized. Interestingly
all programs use only volunteers.
What can people do to help your cause
outside the physical work (i.e. Lobbying)
and what exactly can volunteers expect
We have a list of volunteer opportunities.
We always need people to pack [every Tues.
night from 7:30 to 10pm and the 1st and
3rd Saturday from 11am to 3pm]. We can
arrange special packing events with an
educational component for groups of 6-20
at a time of mutual convenience. We also
always need books and people can bring
books and/or organize book drives. And
of course we can always use money--our
postage bill is $22,000 and growing.
What do you think your organizations purpose
does for the community in and out the
For people in prison we provide reading
material free of charge and demonstrate
that there are people on the outside who
care. On the outside we educate people
about conditions in prison, about the
injustices inherent in our criminal justice
system, we point at the racism inherent
in every aspect of the system and provide
ways for people to think creatively about
changing their views and our societal
norms around incarceration.
What do you think of change (thinking
of GeoClan.com's slogan, Uploading Change)?
Change is, a basic building block of the
universe. The criminal justice system
could certainly use some change.
For more info
please go to www.booksthroughbars.org