A few steps away from where John and John Quincy Adams are spending their eternal rest with their respective spouses, a hive of activity takes place in order to get books into the hands of prisoners across the country. This is the mission of the Prison Book Program, in service to the incarcerated for over 40 years. Along with their usual work of sending out hundreds of books each month, the PBP is currently gearing up for it’s annual book drive, to take place on April 13.
The program operates out of the basement of the United First Parish Church in Quincy (Unitarian). The church is also home to the aforementioned Adams presidential mausoleum, a quite unexpected sight in a church basement, and one that stands in great contrast to the rooms of busy volunteers. While the PBP is an independent, non-religious organization, the church whole-heartedly supports their mission and has been the PBP’s home for the past 10 years.
In the church basement, volunteers are assigned different tasks, from opening the letters that contain book requests, to checking mail regulations at different prisons, double-checking that inmates are still at the same prison address, and of course finding the books in the program’s ever-changing collection to match what the inmates are hoping to read. After the books are found, other volunteers package and address the books for shipping. Postage is the all-volunteer PBP’s largest expense.
What do prisoners want to read? As among any group of readers, preferences vary greatly. Prisoners are asked to write in with a few categories in mind to increase the chance of volunteers finding a good match for them by category, as PBP is generally unable to match specific book or author requests. Dictionaries, thesauri and other reference books are in high demand, as are GED and other educational materials. Health, psychology and self-improvement books are frequently requested. Books covering topics such as social sciences, history, and ethnic studies are popular, along with foreign language guides, sports topics, biographies, and religious and spiritual studies. Inmates write in requesting all kinds of fiction. According to Pam Boiros, a long-time volunteer and program organizer, no request can surprise her at this point. Asked to think of an unusual request, she came up with the one for a Swahili dictionary, but told me that the range of topics requested is endless and nothing seems strange to her any more. PBP limits requests to two books per person per year, and one dictionary per person. They ship out about 500 book requests per month.
One way inmates find out about the Prison Book Program is via its National Prisoner Resource List, compiled with the Lucy Parsons bookstore in Jamaica Plain, which partners with the PBP and serves as the bookstore the Program needs to ship books to prisons, as most prisoners can only receive books shipped from bookstores or other vendors. The list is a compilation of information, including how to contact PBP, as well as 15 other free books-to-prisoner organizations. It also includes information on legal publications and education, groups that offer prisoner support including health and religious support, and groups that help families of incarcerated people.
The books mean a great deal to the prisoners who receive them. The selection in a prison library is often sparse, and prisoners are not able to finish books in the time they are allowed to have them. A book is a treasured gift to many inmates, and one that is often shared with others, as the Prison Book Program asks inmates to do. The Program receives many thanks from book recipients, several of which are posted on its website and displayed in their workspace.
A prisoner from Green Bay, Wisonsin wrote, “Thanks to your organization’s goal of providing offenders with books and other reading material, offenders are able to open their minds and learn new and positive ideas, occupy the long empty hours with fantasy and most importantly, subject themselves to new ways of thinking.” An inmate from Sussex, Illinois wrote, “I would like to express my appreciation for your kindness and dedication to putting substance back into the word ‘corrections,’ also for assisting me thru such trying times with tools to free myself mentally. Thanks for unlocking the gates.” From Enfield, Connecticut, a prisoner wrote, “There are no words that can describe the feeling an inmate gets when he realizes someone on the outside cares enough about him to send him some reading material. It’s organizations like yours that give us inmates hope and inspiration to become better people by reaching out to others in need.” These messages of thanks and appreciation arrive with book requests every day and clearly show the depth of the appreciation for the reading materials the PBP sends out.
Reading the words of thanks, I think of the presence of John Adams’ remains nearby, and his words seem most appropriate: “I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough…the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”
Adams would surely approve of the PBP’s endeavor – to the prisoners who receive them, the books are not just books – they are a connection to the outside world, a symbol of kindness, and an escape from confinement. They are a lifeline.
A large percentage of the books sent out are collected every year at the PBP’s annual book drive, known as The Great American Book Drive and held in partnership with Better World Books and the City Mission Society of Boston. Any books not sent out to prisoners will be distributed locally and internationally. The Book Drive will take place on Saturday, April 13, from 10-3 at The Nonprofit Center, located at 89 South Street in Boston. Books can be brought there directly, or dropped off at the First Parish Church in Quincy, located at 1306 Hancock Street, Suite 100. Regular volunteer hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 9 pm, call 617- 423-3298 to inquire about other times to donate. Check their website for lists of books that are needed and not needed.
—Melaine Temin Mendez