Bookshelves line the walls of Space 12. New and used books of all genres and categories, mostly used, sit ready and waiting to be plucked, packaged, and shipped off to eager readers who are eager to learn. Stacks of letters sit rubber-banded together, ready to be opened and answered. All around the room, volunteers scan the shelves, letters in hand, searching for the perfect titles. One volunteer slides another title under his arm: Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It will accompany a science-fiction novel and a biography of the life of Vincent van Gogh. He will handwrite a letter, weigh the books carefully to ensure he is making the most of the weight allowance, and slide them into an envelope to be mailed across Texas. But it is not school-aged children or under-educated students in third-world countries who will be on the receiving end of these titles and tomes; it is men and women longing for diversion or education, men and women behind bars.
This is an Inside Books Project volunteer session. They happen at least twice a week, every week, as dozens of volunteers congregate to open letters from inmates, note their requests, and scour the shelves for a matching title. There is a bustle of bodies, a shuffling of paper as volunteers of all ages craft handwritten responses, weigh and stuff books into packages, and pile them to be mailed.
It is an initiative not new to Texas. Inside Books Project has been providing reading materials to Texas inmates for 20 years, but the Austin-based organization is the only one in Texas to put books directly into the hands of about 25,000 inmates every year. And they will go to nearly all of the state’s 110 federal facilities, according to Scott Odierno, Coordinator at Inside Books Project. He estimates that every month the organization receives 2,500 requests from the state’s more than 140,000 inmates and sends more than 2,000 packages. At approximately two pounds per package, that is a lot of books. But why bother? Why spend so much time and energy personalizing packages to prisoners?
Reading Reduces Recidivism
Studies show that reading reduces the number of repeat offenders returning to the prison system. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 75 percent of inmates are re-arrested within five years of release. But a program similar to Inside Books Project in Massachusetts showed that participants had a reduced nineteen percent rate of recidivism compared to 45 percent of those who did not. Another study by the RAND Corporation states that prisoners who participate in educational studies are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not.
“Most people go to prison for only a few years, and when they get out it’s hard to get back on their feet,” Odierno said. That is how they end up back behind bars: desperation and fear that they have no other options. “Without an education, it’s that much harder to get back on your feet.”
After all, 68 percent of inmates in state prisons lack a high school diploma. But it is not just what happens post-sentence that matters: studies show that diversions like reading and education help decrease disciplinary violations during incarceration. Access to books keeps inmates out of trouble, assists them with their cases, and helps them learn skills they can use upon release. “Being able to educate yourself keeps people from getting desperate and committing crimes to survive,” Odierno said.
But where books are concerned, Texas prisons miss the mark, at least according to Odierno, who is trying his best to fill the gap. Many prisons are privately owned (in fact, Texas has more than any other state), and have little incentive to decrease the number of returning prisoners, and thus profit margins. Texas also has one of the country’s most underfunded prison education systems. “The state’s not doing their job. They should be providing these resources to people and they’re not. It’s left to the general public to do it,” Odierno said.
And so they have been these past 20 years: collecting and purchasing books requested by inmates to better themselves and make the most of their time on the inside. They request fiction of all kinds (mystery and science fiction are some of the most popular genres), but perhaps not surprisingly law books, GED materials, educational books, and dictionaries are at the top of the most-requested list. What is more, these are books that go straight into the hands of inmates, not prison libraries or communal reserves. The titles that Inside Books Project sends to prisoners are their personal belongings. Prison libraries exist, but many inmates are denied access for various reasons or can only borrow books for a short period of time. That makes learning about world history or economics, studying for a GED exam or upcoming trial, even making it through lengthy works of fiction like Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov, difficult if not impossible. Many prison libraries are also small, about the size of an old cell or even a converted closet. Inside Books Project offers the recipients of these books a chance to hang on to them for as long as they please and do with as they wish.
More than Reading Material
But that is not all the organization offers: along with the books, they send a dose of humanity. According to Dan Murphy, an Inside Books staffer the past six years, letters make the difference. “The letters are just as important as the books we send out,” Murphy said. “We feel very strongly about that humanizing element.”
After all, these letters are handwritten and often personal. In them, inmates frequently share details of their life inside the system or their plans for when they get out. One volunteer recalled a letter in which the inmate requested algebra and trigonometry books so he could take the test for his electrician license when he was released. Another letter writer thanked volunteers for the last books he received and bemoaned the fact that he could not give back to the organization by sending postage or donating books but said he was looking forward to volunteering after he served his time. “Once you start reading the letters, you start getting an idea of how much this program means to them,” Murphy said.
Robert Porter, one of the small contingent of regular volunteers, knows this. He searched for a musical book for an inmate who is interested in guitars. If he cannot find a title that fits the description, he improvises, selecting one that he feels would still bring this inmate a bit of joy. The Van Gogh biography might be the one. Porter continues to volunteer at Inside Books Project because of that personal, humanizing element that makes him feel
like what he is doing is actually doing some good. “Small things mean a lot to people who have nothing,” Porter said. “You really feel like you can make a difference. It’s a very rich feeling.”
The general public donates 95 percent of the books in Inside Book Project’s library. The organization purchases the other 5 percent, which tends to be specific titles on law, education, or books in Spanish. Prisoners love fiction as much as anyone and frequently request espionage, thrillers, and even graphic novels.
There are books that Inside Books Project cannot send. Anything containing gangs, excessive violence, or drugrelated content, wire binding, composition books and journals, and anatomy books (anything with nudity, even
art), are prohibited per federal regulations.
Monetary and book donations are always appreciated. Inside Books Project’s biggest needs often include black and Latino studies, dictionaries, GED materials, books in Spanish, trade, and education books. Drop-off locations can be found on the organization’s website. Monetary donations are used to buy new books and pay for shipping. Sign up to volunteer or donate at www.insidebooksproject.org.