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Meet Kris, Featured Volunteer for April 2024

Kris has volunteered with Books to Prisoners since 1989. Instead of our usual Featured Volunteer questions, we asked her about what it's like to have devoted 35 years to the prison book movement.

What about this work has made you stay with it for 35 years?

One of the primary things that’s made BTP such a rewarding organization to be a part of is working with such a harmonious collective whose monthly meetings are almost completely free of contentiousness and messy in-fighting; we set a doable agenda, stick to it, and get so much accomplished in an hour or two. Another reason is the steadfast focus on our mission of sending free books to incarcerated people anywhere in the US—staying on task without dissipating our energies into side issues. But probably the biggest reason is that I love standing knee-deep in the river of books: my happy place is sorting and shelving book donations, seeing the amazing array of what gets published and what prisoners are interested in reading—every week we receive 10-20 boxes of book donations and we mail out 10-20 boxes of free books to prisoners, so the river of books is never the same on any given day.

How has BtP/the prison book movement changed over 35 years?

When I first started volunteering in 1989, BTP was one of just four prison book programs in the US; over the past 30 years, more than 40 prison book programs have joined the effort to provide free reading material to inmates nationwide. In 1989, BTP received about 50 book requests a month; the number of requests doubled every year until it finally plateaued at around 1,200 requests a month sometime in the past 8-10 years. So when I first began volunteering, BTP met for 4-5 hours every other week; within a year we met every week, and a couple of years later we met twice a week—essentially, growing our volunteer shifts to meet the increasing number of book requests, until today we have four 4-hour shifts per week, as well as lots of volunteer hours beyond those request-answering shifts to handle the organizational tasks.

In 1989 BTP operated out of the dining room of a collective household in the Central District/International District borderlands—all the walls were covered with bookshelves, and the dining room table is where requests were filled; we used the kitchen table to prepare mailings. Eventually we expanded our bookshelves to the front entry hall and later the basement, until we moved to a run-down “office” space at 18th & Union that we shared with Left Bank Books’ AKA Distribution. When that space was no longer tenable—bad wiring, roof leaks, crappy carpet, etc.—AKA Distro and BTP moved to a larger, tidier space at 24th & Aloha. Sometime in (I think it was) the late 1990s, AKA Distro folded and we moved into the basement of a house in the Central District where the gracious owners/longtime supporters said we could stay for a year, and I’m pretty sure it was almost 7 years later that we finally moved out!

We moved to the U District, to the third floor of University Christian Church at 15th & 50th—UCC hosted lots of nonprofits in that wing of their enormous conglomeration of buildings. There was an elevator to the second floor, but that river of books had to be hand-carried up and down a flight of stairs to get to/from the elevator. Later we rented a second room on the third floor just for sorting and storage of book donations, and eventually we moved to a larger basement room at UCC so we no longer had to deal with those stairs—during the move we took over the stage area of the adjoining auditorium until we rented a small book storage room next to our main space. We also occasionally used the social hall for meetings and fund-raisers, and when UCC decided to sell the property, we stored mountains of books in the social hall—about half of them were donated to three Washington state prisons thanks to an energetic prison librarian, but a lot of those books simply were bulldozed when the church was demolished.

Our next home was in the basement of the Crown Hill United Methodist Church, which gave us only a one-year lease and we crossed our fingers that we could extend the lease—but that didn’t happen, and we ended up moving to our current location in PhinneyWood. So over the past 35 years, BTP has moved 7 times—every move an arduous 2 or 3 months of packing up the books, disassembling and moving the bookshelves, then unpacking the books and setting up for operations; each move put us several months behind in answering book requests. When BTP was at UCC, we’d often get 6-9 months behind, which increased the number/cost of return packages. Since the number of requests plateaued a few years back, we’ve mostly been able to keep up, with only a 4- to 6-week lag in answering requests.

In 1989, mailings were so labor intensive! At the post office, we would purchase sheets of stamps of various denominations to total the cost of 1-pound, 2-pound, and the rare 3-pound package, then we’d sit in the PO lobby with damp sponges and put the postage on all the packages, and finally pass the packages over the counter to be mailed. I think it was in the mid-‘90s when we began renting a Pitney-Bowes postage machine, which made mailings much less arduous and much faster—but the rental cost went up every year, and we had to pay for repairs when the machine malfunctioned, so it was a pain in the neck in many ways. The mailings then evolved to purchasing stamps online, first from Endicia and now, both of which are approved vendors for USPS, so the only expense is purchasing the blank postage sheets.

How has the US prison system changed over the past 35 years?

The biggest change was the increase in the number of incarcerated people in the US, which we responded to by growing to meet the literacy needs of all those inmates. [According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 710,054 people were held in state or federal prisons in 1989, compared to 1,230,100 at the end of 2022.] The “war” on drugs sent so many people to prison with lengthy sentences for small amounts of marijuana—which is now, ironically, legal in several states. The “tough on crime” conservative politicians eventually had to give way to reforms when the costs of incarceration skyrocketed.

They also started outsourcing prisons to private corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now GEO, which operates the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for immigrants awaiting deportation. Organizations like the Innocence Project also raised public awareness of the racial disparities in convictions and sentences, and today there is much more widespread support for prison reform. One practice that emerged in the last few years is state departments of correction (DOCs) requiring all inmate packages to be send to a single distribution center rather than to individual prisons; this practice actually reduces mailing costs for our organization but complicates our operations as well as our ability to appeal why a book package is rejected by the state DOC.

What change do you think you've made in the world through 35 years of sustained effort?

I know from reading prisoner letters thanking us for the books they received that we’ve helped many thousands of incarcerated people not only feel connected to the outside community but also have the opportunity to augment their education and job training as well as pass their time in prison reading books that uplift, entertain, and fulfill their hopes for when they’re released. We’ve also kept literally tons of books from going to landfills or paper pulpers—some of the most amazing books pass through our hands and get another life in the hands of someone inside.

What advice would you give to a young activist starting out, or to someone who has been involved with the movement for a few years, but faces competition for their time from work, family, all the other worthy causes in the world, on how to pace yourself and manage your expectations if you want to stay with this, or any movement for social change, for decades?

I think it’s important to feel that whatever time you have to volunteer to a worthy social-change effort is vital, and it is enough—it takes many, many people to keep an organization or a movement active and effective: you are not alone, and what you can contribute is so needed and worthwhile. Since I began volunteering with BTP in 1989, the cost of living and housing costs have increased so much, it is hard to make ends meet without working full time and/or holding down two jobs—wealth inequality is the biggest detractor from people feeling they have time to get involved in social change. You have to take care of your and your family’s needs before you can make time for volunteering for social change—but when you do, I hope you find it as fulfilling and meaningful as I have.

I can’t imagine not being a volunteer; before I got involved with BTP, I worked for a decade with an all-volunteer alternative-newspaper collective, and before that I learned in high school to love volunteering by organizing fund-raisers to “end” hunger. It’s an essential part of who I am, and I know many other activists are also lifelong volunteers. It’s about making the world a better place in whatever way we can. You can do it! Especially if you find something you love doing and a dedicated group of people you enjoy working with. It gives your life meaning in ways you’d never imagine.

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