Books Through Bars

Produced by: 
Produced by Books Through Bars & Scribe Video Center
15 min

Cheryl Hess & Anula Shetty

What's a prisoner to do when learning is low on the penitentiary priority list? Because prisoners in American jails are not able to receive books from sources other than recognized publishers, bookstores, or other legitimate distributors, prisoners interested in self-education but without the financial resources to buy books had very limited access to literature of any kind. New Society Publishers began its free Books Through Bars program after it began receiving letters from indigent prisoners, and today distributes about 300 packages of donated books to individual prisoners, prison libraries, and halfway houses across the U.S. each month. It also sponsors regular public events relating to issues such as human rights, the war on drugs, and prison reform.

As a collectively run, all volunteer group, Books Through Bars is dedicated to promoting prisoners' rights and alternatives to the current system of incarceration. (Though one suspects that some of the volunteers featured in the video care more about literature in general and prisoner literacy in particular than the overthrow of the penal code.) The video makes a powerful case for the need to provide education for people who are in prison. Almost ten years after the documentary short was made, Books Through Bars continues to use the video regularly at fundraising house parties and organizational open houses.

Books Through Bars was founded in 1989 when an employee of New Society Publishers began receiving and answering book requests from indigent prisoners. Today, the group is comprised of 9 core collective members (including one member of the original collective) and nearly 20 occasional volunteers, receives approximately 1000 letters each month, and has received grants from Bread and Roses Community Fund, Phoebus Criminal Justice Initiative, Resist Inc., Womens Way, the Funding Exchange, and the Puffin Foundation. Originally sponsored by the New Society Educational Foundation, Books Through Bars recently received 501(c)3 status.

Cheryl Hess is a documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, La Promesa (The Vow) was filmed in Cuba and is set against the backdrop of St. Lazarus Day (December 17th). Her work has been broadcast on WYBE TV 35 and The Learning Channel. Her films have been awarded Best Documentary at the Big Muddy Film Festival, U.S. Super 8 and DV Festival, and the Philadelphia Film Festival's Festival of Independents, among others. She has received a Fulbright Grant to travel to Colombia, a Window of Opportunity grant from the Leeway Foundation, and a Philadelphia Stories Production Grant from WYBE.

Anula Shetty is an award-winning filmmaker who received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Film & Media Arts from Temple University. She is a producer and co-director of Termite TV Collective, a group of video artists who produce experiemental and activist media. Shetty is a recipient of three Media Arts Fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and has taught film and video production at the University of the Arts, Arcadia University, Asian Arts Initiative and Scribe Video Center.


February 26, 1998 - "Nobody's A Star: The uncommon power of Philadelphia's community video scene," by Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper

Public Screenings, Broadcasts and Festivals: 

May 3, 1998 - 25th Anniversary Athens International Film & Video Festival (Athens, OH)
May 7, 1998 - Shorts Program 2: Personal Explorations and Community Issues at Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema (Philadelphia, PA)
August 11 & 16, 2001 - Prison Breaks: Redemption, Revolution, and Reality at the Prince Music Theater (Philadelphia, PA)