Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books Through Bars

It would be stating the obvious to declare that volunteering one's time to help the less fortunate can be a perspective-altering, empathy-inspiring experience. But spending time at a recent Kelly Writers House volunteer event at Books Through Bars challenged several misconceptions that I had about prisoners in our correctional facilities.

Books Through Bars is a nonprofit that sends books to prisoners incarcerated in US correctional facilities. I wasn't previously aware of this, but most prisons will not accept books from any sources other than bookstores—Amazon, for example—or approved nonprofits. So BTB fills a crucial role: providing prisoners with literature at a time when budget constraints are forcing prisons to cut back on educational programs (as one of the BTB staffers said, "you can't cut back on food or heat, so education is the first thing to go").

I first became aware of BTB when a good friend of mine, Al Filreis, donated a book to them in my honor as a holiday present. It was a perfect present, really, as it involved two of my loves: education and literature. So when I saw a listserv message land in my inbox about volunteering at BTB, I jumped at the opportunity to help out with this phenomenal program. We planned to spend a Saturday morning/early afternoon reading letters from prisoners requesting books, selecting books accordingly for them, and packing those books for mailing.

The Philadelphia location of BTB, located in the A-Space in West Philadelphia, feels like a cross between an excellent used book store and grade school art class (and I mean that affectionately), with several tables covered in scissors, rolls of tape, and brown paper bags for packing books. The book selection, comprised completely of donated books, was amazing. There's an entire room on the first floor dedicated to fiction and reference books (dictionaries are the most requested books), and the basement looked like a full library, filled with stacks of shelves of categorized books. Most disciplines seemed to be represented.

After a few practice runs of packing up books that had already been picked out by staff members (an activity that exposed by ineptness with most processes in the physical world), we were able to select letters from prisoners, read them, and search for appropriate books amongst the stacks. The letters ranged from brief requests for anything in a specific genre through elaborate letters requesting specific works and authors. The letters themselves, all of them, even the most austerely written, served to provide a sense of humanity to an otherwise anonymous and alienated group, a kind of collective entity we may tend to think of as "criminals." The letters rendered all the more obvious that these are people, perhaps people who've made bad mistakes or harmed others, but people nonetheless.

Going into the event, I was operating under the assumption that most prisoners were undereducated, certainly not intellectuals. The first letter I opened served to disprove this misconception. The letter's author politely introduced himself and asked for works dealing with libertarianism, specifically those of Robert Heinlein. If those were not available, he asked for existentialist literature. I was floored--then thrilled. I quickly made my way to the fiction room, scurrying between others attempting to select the perfect book. While there was no Heinlein on the shelves, I was able to pack up some Camus and Kafka for him. We were given a form letter to put in with the packages (it stated regret that we could not write personalized letters), at the bottom of which I scrawled, "excellent choices! Hope you enjoy these!--BTB."

I drew another letter from the pile, hoping that it would be a request for another genre that I knew something about. This letter, written on a scrap of loose leaf paper, asked for Classical works, specifically philosophy. Ecstatic, I ran down the stairs to the philosophy section and pulled copies of Plato's Republic and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Perfect.

The third letter I selected felt thicker than the rest. Inside, there was a letter from a prisoner being held in a Central-PA prison. His visage was photocopied in the upper-right corner of a typed letter. He explained that this was the second time that he had written to BTB, and that the first books had been excellent and influential on the art he creates. He asked for books on modern art, specifically by Jackson Pollock, and works that might help him develop some landscapes he was hoping to complete this year. He also included a photocopy of a short story that he wrote, which was published in a magazine, along with photocopy of some thumbnails of his paintings. (Unfortunately, my expertise in the humanities lies mainly in printed works, so I had to get a consult on which books to select for him.)

And while it's certainly true that not all of the requests were asked for advanced literary material, every single letter was polite and well written—and provided insight into a human life. I came away from the experience with a new outlook and a new compassion for those imprisoned in our correctional facilities. Given that I think that empathy is the most crucial skill for any human to possess, I think that more people should spend a day volunteering at BTB.

Everything BTB does, from providing the hope that literature bestows upon us, through rehabilitating through knowledge, is essential. I've decided to go on my own to volunteer as much as possible. I highly recommend that you check them out and consider getting involved.