This post was written by NCTE member sj Miller with support from the Gender and Sexualities Educators Alliance (GSEA) of NCTE.
Recently, I came across an amazing organization that spoke to my heart on multiple levels: LGBT Books to Prisoners.
For over ten years, LGBT Books to Prisoners has been working to combat some of the hardships faced by LGBTQ people who are incarcerated. It is a donation-funded, volunteer-run nonprofit located in Madison, Wisconsin, that sends books and other educational materials, free of charge, to incarcerated LGBTQ people across the United States. They have sent books to over 8,000 people in that time. These books educate, entertain, and empower.
LGBTQ people, particularly people of color and poor people, experience high levels of policing and criminalization, leading to arrest and incarceration.
Once inside prison, LGBTQ people are subjected to constant violence by both prison staff and other prisoners. In addition to these abuses, a recent survey of LGBTQ people in prison conducted by Black and Pink found that 70 percent of respondents experienced emotional pain from hiding their sexuality while incarcerated or throughout their interactions with the criminal legal system. Only 20 percent have access to LGBTQ-affirming books, and only 29 percent have completed high school upon entering prison.
Financial and book donations allow LGBT Books to Prisoners to respond to the specific needs of incarcerated queer and trans people, thus affirming their dignity by giving them their choice of reading material, which allows them to learn and grow as they desire. These efforts also acknowledge and combat the oppressiveness of the prison system by shifting some control back into the hands of individuals.
With these concerns in mind, I knew I had to become involved. I went to the group’s volunteer training, which will forever change my life. The training was held in the basement of the Social Justice Center, alongside a small library of books, organized by genre. We volunteers learned about the program, took a brief tour, and then jumped right in to help.
The process goes like this: First, a volunteer takes a letter from a bin that that has been catalogued in a database and screened for what can and can’t be sent to that prison. Prisons have various restrictions and they must be adhered to or shipments of books can be returned or destroyed. Each letter contains a note from an LGBTQ person in prison requesting books. Many also tell a story about the person’s life, though that is voluntary. Most people request an LGBTQ book, and an unlimited number of LGBTQ/queer nonfiction books can be sent, but because of high demand, only a limited number of books in the categories of gay fiction, gay erotica, bi books, and trans books per package can be included.
After reading the request, the volunteer gathers up three to five books that best align with the request, and weighs the books to ensure the total mailing weight doesn’t exceed five pounds, which helps keep mailing costs down. (Some prisons limit the number of books incarcerated people can receive; the project sends the max number of books each letter writer can receive, up to five.) Next, the volunteer writes back to the person (which in some cases is the only contact the person in prison will have with people outside their facility), then binds the books with an order form that will allow the person to write back with genres of books they might like in their next order, and a reminder to disclose any new book restrictions that they are aware of. Once the books are entered in a database and restrictions are once again screened, the pile is moved to the table where they are wrapped for mailing. LGBT Books to Prisoners has the capacity to send up to two packages of books per person per year.
The efforts of the LGBT Books to Prisoners align with the broad goals of NCTE and of NCTE groups and programs such as the CEE Commission on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, the Gender and Sexualities Equality Alliance (GSEA), the Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color (CNV) Program, the NCTE Black Caucus, and the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education Programs.
These have all called in various ways for those in our field to disrupt inequities for students of color, for LGBTQIA*+1 people, and for students who are, may become, or were formerly forced unwillingly into the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
I know that NCTE members will want to support LGBT Books to Prisoners, and will provide books—preferably in good condition and softcover. Please consider collecting books and reaching out to your peers, friends, colleagues, and students. To make arrangements, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The types of books sought by LBGT Books to Prisoners include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
- LGBTQ (especially trans, gay and bi materials, nonfiction and fiction alike)
- Dictionaries (English, English-Spanish)
- Drawing or art or crafts (preferably how-to)
- Books in Spanish for native speakers
- African American, Latin@, and Native American history or nonfiction
- Contemporary fiction (especially urban fiction, crime fiction, and thrillers)
- Mythology, occult, and alternative spirituality books
- Prison issues
You are also welcome to make a financial donation. Visit https://lgbtbookstoprisoners.org/
For further information, I encourage you to read related statements from NCTE groups:
Resolution of the CEE/ELATE Commission for Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Statements from the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus
Resolution on Social Justice in Literacy Education
CEE/ELATE Position Statement
Beliefs about Social Justice in English Education
Resource Repository GSEA/NCTE
Please don’t hesitate to contact me for additional information. And know that your efforts will make a difference.
1 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual, ally*+ (*+means the interdeterminacy of identity)
sj Miller is the Coordinator of the MS Program, Dual Teacher Certification Program in Secondary English Education and English as a Second Language, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently writing two books: Gender Identity Justice: Sowing Seeds for Transformation in Education (Teachers College Press) and Navigating Trans*+ and Non-binary Gender Identities (Bloomsbury). sj is editor of the new column “Beyond Binary Gender Identities” for English Journal.
LGBT Books to Prisoners often circulates excerpts of letters with personal information removed, to protect the identities of those who write to the project. Here are some examples of recent letters received by LGBT Books to Prisoners.
Samples of Recent Letters Received by the LGBT Books to Prisoners Program
Hello how are you all doing? I hope this letter finds you all blessed! I really do want to thank you all for the books. I want to say that since I’ve reached out to the community I’ve found so many places that are there for us. I had no clue! I feel overwhelmed. Since I have come out I feel more alive and myself even in the confines of this prison it cannot hold my soul. Plz keep up keep up the great work and stay strong and hold your head up high!
Hay . . . I would like some love story for LGBT inmates they have nothing in our library for us and its not fare. Thank you for your support.
Dear Celine, Matt and others of your organization,
I know that it says thank you notes are not necessary but they should be. The work that you do ALWAYS shines a light in this darkness. I can NEVER truly express my appreciation for this. I am an aspiring author and I was truly moved by the writing that Jandy Nelson used in ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’ that you last sent me. Her use of dual voices and alternating perspectives has inspired me to give it a go. I am unable to take a creative writing course so I use these books you send to hone my craft.
I always enjoy the little notes you also send along as they remind me that I am truly not alone. I also really appreciate you taking time out of your day Celine to look up and tell me about Becky Albertalli’s ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.’ I have yet to get my hands on a copy but I am trying and having this info is very helpful.
I really want you to know how much you help me through this tough time. I recently was finally able to work up the courage to come out to my mother. It’s a small step but it is a start and it’s all thanks to kind hearted individuals like you. Please take care of yourselves.
To: Books to Prisoners
First of all I would like to thank you (this company) for reaching out to the gay prisoners + showing us support by donating books to us. It really is a help to us that do not have family or any outside help. I was just told about your company by a gay friend of mine here at Jefferson C.I. + he told me that you sent him some composition notebooks + some novels to read so I wanted to try to get a couple of the composition notebooks + a couple of suspense/thriller books from you. There is a group of us at this camp that have a reading club + we let each other read each others books as we finish them so a couple of new novels will be very appreciative + 2 composition notebooks will be a big help for my writing that I do. Thank you for your help + all of your support.