Smile Politely

Delivering Books Behind Bars

About a year ago, I was looking for a volunteer activity for the usual reasons: a general desire to do good, get out of the house, meet people, etc. In short, to get involved. This led me to the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center’s website, where I pondered my options. The working group that fit my schedule best was Books to Prisoners, and I soon started attending work sessions.

The premise of Books to Prisoners is simple: as the title suggests, they provide free books to inmates, and also operate lending libraries in our two local county jails. All the books come from community donations. The organization operates out of a ramshackle room in the basement of the Independent Media Center (IMC) that is, unsurprisingly, a storage space for books in transition.

The Books to Prisoners program offers an array of duties for the all-volunteer staff: from data entry to processing incoming requests and packaging outbound books. Typically, I read over the inmate’s requests and try to find the books they want. There’s an art to this. Sometimes the requests are easy to fill; an inmate wants a western, so I send him a Zane Grey novel. But other times the requests are for specific titles that are not in stock. In these cases, I try to find a book that’s topically similar that I think the inmate would like. There may not be a history on the shelves about the Ludlow Massacre, for example, but I might find some books on the American labor movement in general.

Many of the books volunteers have to choose from are, in my opinion, pretty terrible. Since our inventory is full of donated books, by definition what is in stock is something that a person didn’t want anymore. There are rotting paperback thrillers from the Cold War, where the heroes are still battling international communism Tom Clancy-style, preachy self-help books from would be Dale Carnegies, or number two in a series of seven obscure fantasy books written about druids.

Then again, we also receive barely used textbooks donated by UI students at the end of the semester — big, glossy, introductory hardbacks. If I were in prison, I think that I could get lost in one of these for days. Moreover, I get a kick out of selecting contemporary authors I enjoy personally, such as Stephen King and Scott Smith. Another donated gem I recently came across and shipped out was the complete series of The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman.

At a work session one day, I found myself thinking about the famous part of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, where the jail-bound Malcom X begins copying the dictionary word by word to improve his literacy. This leads to hours spent reading books from the prison library, and the realization that, although he’s physically in prison, reading has freed his mind and spirit. I’m pretty sure most prisons in Illinois don’t have the kind of well-stocked library described by Malcolm X. If they did, the prisoners whose letters I read wouldn’t be so ravenous for reading material. For instance, a typical request might ask for an urban novel by a particular author, some information on cooking as a career, and end with a plea for anything at all. So, it is an inspiration to me to think that I might be enabling some inmate to start a similar intellectual journey.

According to Wikipedia, “More than one in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008.” However, the American Correctional Association states that around 95% of all inmates currently in American prisons will be released at some point. I like to feel that my work at Books to Prisoners is helping to prepare inmates to successfully ease back into society as productive people. I like the idea that even reading a text on Algebra — or even a Dean Koontz novel purely for escapist reasons — can lead to a more literate, enriched inmate coming out of, say, Big Muddy River Correctional Center.

One night, I was watching the local news on television and a report came on about a robber who walked into a business, clubbed the employee working there with a tire iron, took what he wanted and left. This brutality was all captured on a security camera and played back for me on the news report. I thought, that guy will probably end up in an Illinois prison and send in a request for books, maybe a novel by James Patterson or a manual about wiring houses. I might be the one to send it to him, along with a friendly response letter.

I don’t hear the voices of the inmates’ victims. Maybe if I did, I’d be more inclined toward having the inmates rot in their cells without the company of the written word. But I see plenty of these handwritten requests, and so many of them are respectful and heartfelt. Over and over, I’ve read prisoners offer gratitude and prayers to the anonymous person reading their letter. Over and over, prisoners have expressed wonder that such a program as Books to Prisoners even exists at all. A man once wrote back to me personally (I sign my return letters by my first name) to say he loved the Anne McCaffrey fantasy novel that I selected for him. When I read one these notes, it’s like finding a message in a bottle, a cry for help as hard to ignore as a cat meowing for food. It’s a pleasure to be able to write back.


To find out about volunteer opportunities at Books to Prisoners, visit its website.


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