Late in 2021, Providence Books Through Bars, an all-volunteer organization that sends books to people in prison all over the country, knew they needed a different space from which to work. For almost a decade, the group had been working out of a volunteer’s garage. But lack of heat or access to facilities made the work of sending over 1,000 packages of books to inmates across the US difficult.
Volunteer Therese Zink was worshipping at St. Mark’s, Warwick at the time, and asked the Rev. Susan Wrathall whether space might be available in an Episcopal church building. Wrathall suggested St. Barnabas in Warwick where the Rev. Scott Lee, the church’s rector, was happy to make room for the program.
Hosting Providence Books Through Bars “extends the congregation’s ministry to care for those in prison. It allows us to live into the call to love others as Christ loves us; to care for others in the ways that Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25,” Lee says. “It allows us to acknowledge that this is part of our call as Christians and a simple way to tell people ‘you are not forgotten.’”
At St. Barnabas, Books Through Bars moved into a space four times larger than their previous garage home early in 2022. The new “upgraded” space, as Zink calls it, includes ample room for book storage and tables for packaging and labeling. The location, on the first level of the building, allows volunteers to move in and out without carrying bins of packages up or down stairs on their way to the post office.
Dr. Zink, a professor of family medicine at Brown University, says the parish is a great host. “Several vestry members worked with us to find the right space. Having access to internet and cell phone service is critical to our work,” she says. “I’ve … moved my membership to St. Barnabas because I was so touched by the engagement the vestry and Father Scott exhibited in the possibility of hosting Books Through Bars.”
In its new digs, Books Through Bars has dedicated one room to fiction, and another to non-fiction and its mailing operation. The organization maintains a database of inmates’ previous choices along with the regulations and restrictions at specific prisons. The group has between 5,000 and 8,000 titles on hand at any one time, and mails approximately 500 books a month in packages of two to four paperbacks each.
Books Through Bars is open to volunteers on Sunday afternoons following worship and coffee hour at St. Barnabas. The congregation has welcomed volunteers to attend coffee hour, and the group has reciprocated by hosting coffee hour for the congregation.
Teens in the congregation find the program a good fit for their community service hours, and two high school volunteers from another part of the city have begun attending the 10:00 service.
Books Through Bars accepts donations of paperback books, but not hard covers. Inmates – on average 150 or so each month – write to request books within a certain genre or area of interest rather than by specific title. One prisoner, with an interest in reading “the classics,” has requested and read about 1,000 books.
Financial donations help cover mailing costs and the purchase of books not already on the organization’s shelves. Manga and anime are both popular genres that frequently require purchase.
Providence Books Through Bars was founded in 2003 by Dirt Palace, a Providence feminist artists’ collective, and is a 501 c3 non-profit. It is associated with the national Books Through Bars organization.