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Today is:
An Interview With Barbara Hirshkowitz of Books Through Bars
By Clayton Ruley

In 2005, spoke with Barbara Hirshkowitz a volunteer for Books Through Bars, an organization that looks to help those many forget about: prisoners!

People 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) have! (GC) : What exactly is Books Through Bars and how did this organization come to be?


Barbara 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 Baltimore Ave.


GC : What is your role and what does it entail?



BB : 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 our finances.


I also curate a collection of work by artists in prison, communicating with them, soliciting art work, organizing exhibits, doing publicity, hanging the shows, etc.


GC : 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?



BB : 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.


Here's our mission statement:


"We 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 walls."


We 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.


GC : 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?


BB : 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.


There 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.


GC : What are the most frequently requested books?


BB : 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.


GC : How did you personally get involved?


BB :   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.


GC : 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?


BB : 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.


GC : Are there other national and international organizations like yours and how can someone volunteer and/or become locally involved?


BB : 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.


GC : What can people do to help your cause outside the physical work (i.e. Lobbying) and what exactly can volunteers expect or do?


BB : 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.


GC : What do you think your organizations purpose does for the community in and out the prison system?


BB : 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.


GC : What do you think of change (thinking of's slogan, Uploading Change)?


BB : Change is, a basic building block of the universe. The criminal justice system could certainly use some change.


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