An Escape: Books through Bars provides inmates with the magic of stories

Providence Books through Bars is a 15-year-old organization that provides reading material to inmates throughout the country. It is a small operation in the South Side that helps to fuel big dreams. I recently spoke with Tara Emsley, president of Providence Books through Bars, about the organization.

Emily Olson: How does Books through Bars work?

Tara Emsley: We are one of about 30 different independent prison book programs in the country. Inmates find out about us through a resource guide in the prison or through word of mouth. They will write us a letter telling us about themselves and letting us know what they’re interested in. We read the letter and go through our library and see what we have that matches up best with their interests. Then we mail those books directly to those inmates. The requests we get are really interesting. We get a lot of fiction, but then you get a lot of non-fiction, learn a trade, learn to draw, learn a different language. We get history books and classics and philosophy. We get a really wide variety.


EO: Is there a general theme to the letters you receive?

TE: There’s definitely a lot of people trying to learn something for when they get out, like how to build a house or farm. A lot of letters they send are quite poignant. They’ve been there for a long time and will be there for a long time, so they’re not only preparing for their release, but this helps them keep their minds busy while they’re there. Our book packages are like Christmas to them because they might not have connections on the outside anymore to send packages.
EO: Do you require inmates to return the books you send?
TE: They keep them and often will share them with other inmates.

EO: How often do you send a package of books to an inmate?

TE: We get more letters than we can answer, so we try to limit it to about once a year per inmate so we can get to as many people as possible.

EO: Do you work with inmates in Rhode Island?

TE: We don’t send books to inmates in RI. They have a mail policy that all books must be brand new and must come from a publisher. I think it’s a matter of trying to control what comes into the prison in terms of contraband, but we hope to work with them. We try to talk to them and tell them we’re not sending anything inappropriate, but want to serve our community, and are open to continuing the conversation with them.

EO: How could someone get involved with Books through Bars?
TE: Fundraising and financial contributions are huge. We have a big yard sale every June where we raise a good amount of money, and we have an annual appeal for donations, which starts during the week of Thanksgiving.
We are always looking for volunteers to read the letters and choose the books. We get together on Sunday afternoons at 1pm, and people can come as small groups or individually. A group of students or a group of people from a church might come. Once a woman did it as a birthday celebration and packed books with a group of her friends and that was great.
At our library at 42 Lenox Avenue, there’s a bin on the front porch where you can drop off a box of books. If it’s more than a box, we ask that donors reach out to let me know when you’ll be coming. We have a list on our website of what we need. Mystery, sci-fi, westerns, how- tos, classics, nonfiction, history, how to draw and blank journals are popular requests. The other thing that’s really popular is a dictionary. I think that’s our highest requested book because inmates don’t have any access to the internet. They need dictionaries so they can spell words in a letter or understand a letter from their lawyer. Dictionaries are very important.
To get involved with Books through Bars, join their Facebook page at so you can be informed about the organization’s activities and needs.