This week’s spotlight: all things books.
Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)
I hate Wednesday.
I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.
When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.
Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.
The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.
Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.
We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.
“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”
While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.
Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.
“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”
The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.
Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.
A lot of letters.
For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.
The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.
What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.
How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.
Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.
Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.
Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.