On a drizzly Sunday afternoon in Olympia, Wash,, two young women sit in a basement and open mail, reading and sorting under a 40-watt light bulb. They're surrounded by brown paper parcels stacked on chairs and a table.
One letter reads: "I wouldn't mind a book on creative writing or books with photos of birds, flowers, and natural colors that have been absent from my life for many years."
One of the women scours the basement shelves for a nature book to send this inmate in a Texas prison.
The two are part of Books to Prisoners, a group that sends free reading material to inmates across the United States, operating on the slimmest of shoestrings but with a dogged determination.
Organized in Olympia in 1996, Books to Prisoners is motivated by a desire to show solidarity with prisoners. The organization believes that conditions in prisons can further dehumanize the people who are held there.
The letters they receive, some written on small scraps of paper and many written months before, are a window into the lives of prisoners.
A California inmate requests any self-help and educational books that are available. He has abundant time, and he needs to use it wisely, he says.
“My devaluing of the importance of education was a major factor leading to the damage I caused my victims …” he writes.
Another says: “If you have any survivor memoirs that would be cool, especially survivors from German concentration camps or Russian gulags.” He likes to compare himself to them and feel fortunate in comparison. He signs off: “Peace and chocolate.”
Prisoners most often request dictionaries, African American history and fiction, books on native American studies, legal publications, GED study guides, and books in Spanish. They also request general fiction, politics, and art.
Books to Prisoners volunteer Tina Echeverria says her desire to help was shaped by family experiences.
Her younger brother was a Vietnam War draft resister who narrowly avoided prison. Her two daughters spent a night in jail after taking part in a protest against the Iraq war. Her uncle in Guatemala was imprisoned after his son, who lived with him, committed a crime and he was considered an accomplice. Her grandfather owned a gas station in California and was murdered in a robbery. His killer was never caught.
Ms. Echeverria understands that many people, including her friends, don’t have the same level of empathy for prisoners as she does.
“I think the majority of the general population believes that people who are in prison deserve to be there,” she says. “I do think there are individuals who are unsafe to be around other people and need to be in some kind of institution where they can get help. But a lot of people are in prison just for trying to make it with the only resources available to them.”
The organization’s needs are basic (rent, postage, book donations, some volunteers), and its structure is simple. It has the feel of operating in a back avenue of society with a minimum of resources – much like the prisoners it serves.
Olympia Books to Prisoners pays $50 a month to rent its basement in a residential area. It has a steady flow of used books dropped off at two donation bins.
Many volunteers are students or graduates of Evergreen State College in Olympia. They come on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights to maintain the “library” by sorting and shelving. Others open letters and roam the basement to find any book that might resemble an inmate’s request. Up to five pounds of used paperbacks – a weight dictated by postage rates – are wrapped and sent to each inmate. This usually translates into four to six books.
The organization is a nonhierarchical collective that makes decisions through consensus. It doesn’t believe in presidents, CEOs, bosses or anyone having more authority than others.
Members think this model is part of the group’s longevity. As volunteers come and go, the current ones have the power to decide together how things should be done. They say this has allowed Books to Prisoners to adapt to the waxing and waning of volunteer muscle, financial stability, and other conditions. Currently, half of the volunteers are key holders with the ability to unlock the basement and host volunteer shifts. They have more responsibility, but not more authority. Only the owner of the house, who gets to vet the key holders, has a larger say.
A number of groups across the country send books to prisoners, but the Olympia and Portland organization are among a handful that have a nontraditional structure. The Seattle parent organization is larger, more formally organized, and more active in fundraising. It was founded by Left Bank Books in 1973.
One volunteer came to Olympia Books to Prisoners after spending five years in prison. The books she received there meant everything to her. “It's survival. It's a way of learning and furthering your mind and going to places you can't go because you are behind bars,” she says.
She prefers not to give her name because of her incarceration, but she says communication with people outside prison makes an enormous difference.
”To get a few words from a stranger and know that they're rooting for you is something that reminds you that you are a person and that there is this larger world you belong in, that not everything is closed off by the prison gate.”
While still in prison, she vowed to join Books to Prisoners upon her release.
“There are days that are so hard. You miss your life, your lover, your cat. You miss lots of things for years on end. Then one day you get this piece of mail or this book you were hoping to read, and it changes everything.”