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Holiday Tip: Sending Books to Incarcerated Friends & Family


Where I currently work, one my responsibilities is getting books purchased by the friends and family of inmates to the inmates themselves. Although it’s probably not a surprise to anybody really, prisons aren’t too helpful in presenting the ins and outs of sending loved ones packages and frankly, the family and friends of the incarcerated aren’t always willing to go the extra few steps necessary to guarantee proper delivery.

As someone’s who is both glad to help and someone who has wasted too many hours tracking down a package or being chewed out by a upset mom who didn’t give the right address in the first place, I can sympathize with the helplessness package-senders feel and the “Hey, I got other shit to do all day than find out where the bible you sent your convicted felon son ended up” cynicism those at the prison possess.

And so, with the holidays coming up, I thought I might share some information that’ll make sending a package to a prisoner as painless as possible. A Google search will give you a couple of sites and message board discussions with the “right” kind of information, but it’s my experience that there’s an attempt by the places that ship and the people that want to ship to sugarcoat or avoid the kinda fucked reality that you’re sending a book to your parent or spouse or child or best friend, and I’d like to avoid that.

I’m also well aware that most of my readers probably don’t need something like this but a) If it doesn’t apply to you, you’ll probably find it a little fascinating or b) You probably got someone in your family that’s a little dumber about these things and maybe my advice from experience can help you help them…


Books are the best bet in terms of entertainment for a prisoner because well, they’re pretty much all that you can ship. I don’t know anything about shipping anything other than books and all the people I’ve talked to who have tried to ship anything other than books have found out it somehow, for one reason or another, never got there.

While places like Amazon do indeed ship, the approach is going to be completely hands-off, outside of them shipping it to the address you provide. This is both just how it goes and the pragmatic reason that if Amazon held any responsibility for prison shipments outside of shipping, they would need to have a dude or five for every state that follows-up and deals with prison packages that somehow, never get to their destination…or are missing a book or two…or find the magazine they sent was leafed through heavily…and the pin-up is missing.

My opinion is, the best way to ship to a prison is indeed, to go through a business–prisons are going to be less suspicious and less scrutinizing of a package that was sent through someone and not just you going to the post office–but I would suggest finding a local bookstore that will do it for you. Any bookstore, especially the chains, that can order you books and ship them are your best bet.

Of course, it’s important to note that not all bookstores are willing to do this and that even within a national chain, some stores do it and others do not. Shipping to a prison is a big pain in the ass and it’s all a matter of if the store you’re asking feels it’s worth it and gets enough shipments to make it worth it. “Worth it” both in terms of making money but also, if they’re willing to deal with the physical act of shipping it and the possibility of you getting pissed off at them if the package doesn’t arrive on-time or never arrives at all. Which brings me to my next point…


Seriously. Whether or not it’s fair or right, if you can find a place in your town or not too far from you that’s willing to send packages out, you’re lucky. Be really nice and understanding. You should do this just because well you should, but you should also do it because frankly, if anything fucks up during shipping that is the shipper’s fault and not the prison’s, it can still be blamed on the prison. I happen to be a pretty nice and patient guy and I don’t take it at all personal, but you can’t bet that the person responsible for shipping your package out isn’t kinda vindictive and if you hassled them about the price of shipping or this or that, well they may put off that trip to the post office a couple more days.


-There will obviously be a shipping/handling fee. The general rule is a flat-rate and then, 50 cents to $1 for each additional book. Some places just do a flat-rate and a lot of the times, it’s really high–because they can make it high, where else you gonna go?–but most places seem to set it at like, $5 bucks or so.

-Keyword: Handling. Don’t get mad because you know it only costs $4 bucks to Media Mail a book somewhere. Realize that the “handling” fee too, is pretty real when it comes to prison shipment. Someone has to walk/drive the package to a post-office, wait in line, fill-out a confirmation form of some kind, etc. etc. Also, because prison shipment is so unreliable, there’s usually a lot of pieces of paper saved, photo-copied, kept in binders, etc. for each and every shipment so that the store can cover its ass when/if the package never gets there.

-Don’t demand it get there on a certain day or request specific shipping. Media Mail and Priority Mail is what most places will do because it’s the cheapest but also because it’s going to a prison and there’s simply no way to make a promise about which day or what time it will be given to the inmate. If you over-nighted a package to a prison, it still is going to be inspected and looked at by someone within the prison. Additionally, no prisons I’m aware of do anything with mail on weekends.

-You will probably need to buy all the books in the store. Bookstores are not post-offices. Don’t expect to buy one book there and then bring a couple others from this place or that. It’s a business and they need to make money. It’s also a weird, complicated, I guess legal precaution. Let’s say you buy a book and bring a few others in. The person at the register or the mailer isn’t going to look through every page of the book or anything. If you put any kind of correspondence or some object in the book, it’ll obviously cause problems.

-Have every piece of information pertaining to the address/destination ready! Name, inmate number and/or P.O Box, name of the prison, address of the prison etc. Even places that ship to prisons are not going to have any kind of reference material or prison address book and they probably don’t have the time or patience to look that crap up for you.

-You will need to supply all of your personal information. It needs to have a shipper name, address, and phone number outside of the store that’s sending it. Refusing to provide any of this information just causes problems and increases the ability for the package to get lost.

-Stores may have weird, unexpected rules about shipping. For example, a lot of prisons have a limit as to how many books and so, the store at one point or another may have heard that a certain prison only allows this many books at one time and have applied that as their general prison shipping rule even if it’s not true of all prisons. No pornography/sexually explicit is a rule a lot of stores have and unfortunately, what constitutes “sexually explicit” to a store might even mean like KING or MAXIM. Sometimes, it might even be a decision of the cashier/clerk you encounter and in that case, you’ll just have to accept that last week you sent MAXIM no problem and this week someone else is telling you that you cannot.

-If your package is rejected by the prison, you will probably have to pay a small fee that the store had to pay to get your books back. One example is that often, a prisoner gets out and the package arrives at the prison after that or the inmate’s been transferred. There aren’t forwarding addresses when you get out or get relocated and so, the prison just gives the package back to the post-office, refuses to pay, and the mail-man will come back to the store demanding like $3.33 or whatever; that cost will be then put back on you. Before you get mad, think of how much money could be potentially lost by a store if they simply took this cost upon themselves every time.

-Be aware that if you in any way, no matter how small, decide to ignore, argue with, or forego any of the stuff above, it could mean that your package will not arrive. It’s hard to be so frank and honest, especially with like, the mother of some kid in for cocaine possession or something, but that’s how it’s gotta be. The best bet is to follow the rule and adapt to them.


Every prison guard I’ve ever met has a story or two about getting a bottle or piss or shit thrown at them, or something equally awful and so, I have a lot of respect for the people that work within our prisons and don’t want to make any over-arching statements but well, prisons are mad corrupt; they just are. It sucks and it’s a fucked or double-fucked thing to think about when you’re just some person on the outside trying to maybe kinda brighten your incarcerated loved one’s day/week/month/year/life sentence, but it’s true.

For obvious reasons, all packages are opened and looked through and all letters are read and that’s to be expected. But what also happens more frequently than even most cynics expect is that the shit you sent never makes it to the person you’re sending it to for shitty, selfish reasons. If you happen to send a book that the person who inspects the mail maybe wants to read his or herself, they might just take it. They may flat-out steal it or they may find something about it that justifies it as something that “shouldn’t” go to a prisoner. If the cover has this or that on it, if they open it up to a page and they find a way to justify the material as violating this or that rule, the book’ll never get through.

And it sucks. But that’s just how it is. I’ve seen mothers frantically going through every one of their choices trying to make sure it doesn’t have this or that in it and it’s tough to explain to them that it’s fruitless. Sending anything to a prison is a gamble. But it’s a really wonderful gamble because at the worst, you’re out like $20 bucks and you can try it again, and if the books gets through–and don’t get it too twisted, most stuff gets through–it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever for someone in jail. I’ve talked to prisoners who got out and came to the stupid, corporate bookstore where I work to find me and personally thank me for sending out the book for their wife or girlfriend! Obviously, it means a lot to them.


-No hardback books! No big, heavy paper-backs either! Flat-out: They can be used to bash some other inmates’ skull in and even if your best friend or son isn’t that type of guy or whatever, a giant hard-back or 800-page paperback is considered a weapon. Avoid hardbacks altogether, only do relatively short paperbacks. If you’re sending some kind of big, long book, try to get it in the Mass-Market form. Mass-Markets are the small, like “beach-reading” size.

-No pornography, avoid sexual material. Pornography seems to be pretty much out, and if you want to send stuff like KING or MAXIM, just be able to accept the fact that it might not get there. Also, don’t send some weird, fashion-y photography/art magazine because it’s got titty in it and think the prison won’t pick up on it. You weren’t the first person with that idea.

-With magazines, they should not have any kind of wrapping or weird inserts in them. Most of the time, this is the sort of thing that a person within the prison will deal with but, it’s always good to be safe. Don’t have the stuff rubber-banded together or anything like that. Any of these weird anomalies on a bad day, might keep your package from ever getting to your loved one.

-Don’t write ANYTHING in the books. No cute messages, not even something you see as short and innocuous. When the package is sent at the post-office, even the person there will ask you if there’s any “written correspondence” because they also get angry calls from the mothers, fathers, and friends of inmates whose package never got there.

-Do not send more than three things at once. Generally, prisons do have some kind of limit on how much stuff a prisoner can get at once. If you send four books and the limit’s three, well the prison will hold one of the books for some amount of time. Again, they’ll eventually get that fourth book but it’s just one more weird thing to worry about and one more excuse for that additional book to get “lost” or well, actually get lost.


The most depressing thing about prison shipments is seeing the same bunch of books sent to every prisoner. When it comes to magazines, senders seem to do very well, but when it comes to books, it’s mainly religious stuff, some “street fiction”, mystery novels, and occasionally, some book explicitly about prison. While none of these are bad and most are fitting, it’s presumably a total bummer to be in prison, hear you get a package, and then the package is a fucking bible or some book that discusses the American prison system. Of course, if your loved one specifically requested these books, then you’re fine, but if you’re stepping into a bookstore to pick something out, avoid the bibles and social-justice books.

This decision to edify really does manifest itself in either, a) Family and friends trying to “change”/”convert” their imprisoned loved one or b) Trying to “open their mind” and turn them intellectual. It’s my opinion–and so, take it for what you think it’s worth–that this is really, really, awful. Moms grasping bibles and successful older brothers sending their younger, fuck-up brother a copy of Dostoevsky is pretty obnoxious. Send them something that might help them out or explain something to them, but the main focus should be entertainment and escape. Let the uh, months upon months (or worse) that they have to spend in fucking prison take care of the edification.

Anyways, tomorrow I’ll have my own list of book suggestions for sending. It’s a mix of books that have passed across my desk and I’ve thought “Woah, that’s something the inmate might enjoy” and some books I’ve thought about or have sent incarcerated friends and family…

Written by Brandon

November 17th, 2008 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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