You won’t see Roger and Susan during shifts very often, but they make enormous contributions behind the scenes.
When “Books to Prisoners” (BtP) worked out of the University Christian Church in the U-district, Roger was a Wednesday morning regular. He was also a Friend of the Seattle Public Library, and frequently brought books the SPL had donated to them to fill special requests.
Sometime after BtP moved to the basement of the Crown Hill Methodist Church, Roger and Susan discovered that when used books have passed from used bookstore to flea market to thrift stores like Goodwill, they finally arrive at DISCOVER BOOKS, a national online retailer of used books. As part of their corporate mission, DISCOVER BOOKS donates excess inventory to non-profits. Roger and Susan began to “rescue” pallets full of books of this excess inventory and find them good homes in schools and libraries around the US, including Books to Prisoners. Every week, they drop off boxes of books, especially genre fiction, how-to, and textbooks.
When the quarantine began in March 2020, BtP shut down the volunteer shifts. But Roger and Susan had the space and the inventory at home to fill orders for the entire state of Texas, which at the time was the source of 40% of BtP requests. Roger used his skills to pre-print mailing labels and run statistical analysis on the mail. Their efforts were invaluable for keeping BtP backlog down during that chaotic time.
Roger and Susan first learned about “Books to Prisoners” (BtP) when we volunteered for the “Friends of the Seattle Public Library” (FOSPL). FOSPL had an annual book sale and BtP attended in order to stock their shelves with books to send to prisoners. An annual infusion of books was hardly enough to meet the BtP needs. For example, here is the shelf for westerns (a popular category of requests). Frequently, the one shelf for westerns had a selection of only one or two books.
Susan and Roger began at BtP like most volunteers by answering letters from inmates. The letters often had a common theme, that letters are very important to the inmate. Three letters continue to make an impression after many, many years, so we wish to share them. Letter#1 was from an inmate who traded his chicken dinner with another inmate to obtain the paper and envelope he needed in order to request a book. Books are important to him and he was willing to trade what he had of value to get a book.
“I’m writing you this letter because I’m an indigent inmate and love to read because it helps with my spelling. But I don’t have no family and had to give up my chicken to write this letter. So I’m wondering if y’all have any Brad Thor books and I love to read old comic books. I need all the help I can get. I send my blessings and love with this short letter. Hope to hear from y’all soon.”
Letter#2 was from an inmate in a fragile mental state. In the future he will be released and become our neighbor. The book helps put him on the path to success in his life.
“To whom it may concern, I wish to make a request for a book of sudoku puzzles. I’m currently indigent and I’m on a mental health unit, and learning to be a better person. When I have the sudoku puzzles to work, my mind is at peace and I find comfort and challenge at the same time. I’m praying you people can help me, so I thank you in advance. Have a nice day!”
Letter#3 is a reminder that inmates have families and books are often the bridge to them.
“My name is Rick and I consider myself an artist. My family knows this. My little brother wrote and asked me to draw him Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Though I do not have the material. I don’t like saying this, but my little brother is special needs and writes to me and I really do appreciate the sentiment and I would like to draw this for him. So I am requesting comic books of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. His favorite is Batman. So if you do have anything like this which I can use the pics inside to draw something for him, thank you.”
A similar letter was a request for a book for an inmate’s eight year old son’s birthday. A book was the only gift the inmate could receive and therefore have a gift for his son. . We recognized how very important these books can be for inmates. Six years ago we began obtaining books from DISCOVER BOOKS so that BtP can provide the books that inmates want the most.
Acquiring the books is only the first step in meeting inmate requests, but we receive satisfaction because we know how important the right book can be to an inmate. We are pleased that the six western shelves are now filled and inmates receive what they request.
P.S. As part of this post, we were asked about our favorite books. For the past six years, our primary activity has been donating books to elementary schools. We donate about half a million books per year. We read a lot of children’s books. Our two favorite authors are Mo Willems for his “Elephant & Piggie” series and Andrew Clements for “Frindle”. Even though the target audience is young, every adult could enjoy and benefit from these treasures.