If you were serving time in prison, where would you get something to read?
Probably not the prison library -- funding for them has been eroding for years, and if you're like most prisoners, you wouldn't have the money to order from Amazon.
Each year, 13,000 inmates in prisons across the country get reading material from Seattle-based Books to Prisoners. The volunteer-run organization sends books for free to prisoners who request them.
Most inmates are in for a long wait. Books to Prisoners doesn't have enough volunteers to keep up with the constant stream of requests.
Volunteers are currently opening letters received in October. The backlog is so great that, for the first time in the nonprofit group's 40-year history, Books to Prisoners is considering tossing the oldest letters just to catch up. Some requests have taken so long to fulfill that by the time the package of books arrives at the prison, the prisoner who requested them has already been transferred or released, and the package is returned to sender.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are the most-requested nonfiction books. On the fiction side, it's thrillers, westerns and true crime. The categories represent the dual needs of prisoners -- to educate themselves and to pass the time.
Some kinds of books are so popular they're shipped out as fast as they're donated, so inmates don't necessarily get the books they request. Volunteers try to approximate the request.
Another common request is for GED materials. A lot of prisons don't offer help to inmates who are completeing their high school diploma. The need for these resources is so great that sometimes even those who work at prison libraries write to the organization asking for them, said Books to Prisoners president Andy Chun, who has worked with the group for 18 years. It's a shoestring operation; because books and labor are donated, the group's largest costs are rent and postage.
Launched to help political prisoners, Books to Prisoners gradually moved to help all categories of prisoners and has become one of the largest organizations sending free books to prisoners in the United States.
Only 6 percent of the group's books go to Washington state prisoners, not so much because of a smaller prison population as because most prisons in this state accept only new books. Texas, which has very few restrictions on books shipped to its prisons, as well as a huge prison population, gets 45 percent of the books the organization ships.
Sometimes, after they receive books, prisoners send thank-you letters, which are collected in a file draw in the Books to Prisoners office.
Most are only a few words, but some are effusive.
One of them reads, "I haven't been doing too well since being locked up these nine years -- everybody has fallen off or just plain moved on without any reason that I know of.?... I still have a chance to live because of you and your staff..."
To make a donation or volunteer with fundraising or the Monday and Wednesday evening mailings, call 206.442.2013 or email b[email protected]. Find out more at bookstoprisoners.net.