Hi Bev! First of all, how did you get started with Books to Prisoners?
About 8 years ago, after leaving my job teaching English as a Second Language in a community college, I was looking at Craigslist for volunteer opportunities and saw an ad for Books to Prisoners. I volunteered pretty sporadically for a couple of years. After I got another job, I stopped volunteering (since all of the shifts at that point were during the evening). Then in 2012, I saw that there was a new shift available on Wednesday from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm — so I started volunteering again.
We appreciate that you chose to pick up volunteering with our organization again! You sound pretty busy these days–what drew you back to Books to Prisoners in particular?
On my first shift, Andy [interviewer’s note: Andy is a volunteer, and the current president of Books to Prisoners, who has been helping Books to Prisoners for more than 20 years!] trained me and told me a little about the organization. I was amazed by the dedication of the volunteers who had created this organization and all that they were accomplishing in terms of filling such a big societal need! Reading some of the letters from real-life prisoners, I saw clearly what an essential purpose this organization has, and what hugely important work was being done in this small library.
The bread and butter of the volunteer experience is reading and responding to letters from incarcerated individuals. What letters have stuck with you during your time as a volunteer?
I’m always so very touched to read so many letters with such eloquent expressions of huge gratitude for the organization. I was blown away one day to open a letter and see such amazing artwork. I’ve been surprised many times by the diversity of the requests — everything from quantum physics, classical French literature, calculus — to requests for basic English language and literacy resources. I’m especially sympathetic when I get a request for basic English. And seeing the huge number of letters we get from prisoners requesting books to help them better themselves in some way: self-help books, basic skill books, or books to learn some practical skill to use when they get out of prison; I just wish more people knew! It’s always such a delight when we can give the requester pretty close to what they’re asking for, and sometimes a little heart-breaking when we can’t.
It’s difficult to discuss the mission of Books to Prisoners without also discussing the reasons for its existence. Have your experiences at Books to Prisoners shaped your thoughts about the correctional system in this country?
I have certainly learned so much since I started volunteering here. Just the idea that prisons, in many cases, are for-profit businesses seems so inappropriate. Learning that some U.S. prisons have no library, and reading from one inmate’s letter that the only thing they have to read in his prison is a book of rules really shocked me. I heard on NPR about the very successful Danish prison system where rehabilitation is the core philosophy, in which the mission is to re-train and prepare inmates for reintegration into society.
Our prison punitive model with little attention to rehabilitation seems so archaic and leaves such a big gap to be filled. I was thrilled when Books to Prisoners got the grant from Better World Books (in 2015) to buy some books to send when prisoners ask for books about starting a business, and it’s delightful to read a request for that type of book & be able to send it out to them. The grant helps us to better serve our prisoners who are seeking to better themselves and prepare for re-entry into society. And we need a lot more!
Do you have any words for readers who may be thinking about supporting Books to Prisoners?
I would highly recommend supporting Books to Prisoners! It provides such a needed service, and with more resources and more volunteers, we could do so much more. Volunteering is an excellent way to expand one’s world, and to connect with some great folks!
Most volunteers are drawn to Books to Prisoners because of a connection first and foremost with books. What are some of your favorites, and what else do you do when not volunteering here?
I like reading different kinds of metaphysical books, historical fiction, and books about animals, like Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
Hobbies include walking in the park with my dog, genealogy, and meditation. A little trivia: I met my Irish husband in India 35 years ago. Our dog, Paris, came to us from a rescue facility in Texas of 250 other dogs! Other volunteer work I’ve done in recent years includes feeding baby birds at PAWS Wildlife center and assisting with seals on the beaches with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.