Peter Yates (left)
How long have you been volunteering with Books to Prisoners?
I’ve been volunteering for Books to Prisoners for one year. My wife told me about the organization and we went together. It seemed like a great organization so I started going regularly.
As a volunteer, you spend a lot of time reading prisoners’ letters and finding books to mail. What is this process like for you?
I have answered lots of interesting letters, they can often bring one close to tears, and the one frustration is not being able to find the exact book that someone is asking for. The greatest satisfaction is filling a request that you feel could be life changing, where an inmate is looking for a book that can start them on a new career or help them heal.
What are your thoughts on the correctional system in the United States?
I think the correctional system we have is one of the least forgiving, most unfair and punitive in the world. I could go on here but I would say that it’s a disgrace and shames us all.
How did this perspective influence your decision to work with Books to Prisoners?
Volunteering at Books to Prisoners is a very small attempt on my part to change [this system]. I thought Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy was a great call to action for those who are dismayed by the state of the correctional system and his appearance at the Seattle Public Library last year was inspiring for me and many others who attended.
Since we’re an organization that deals with books, would you mind talking about some of your favorite books?
I love books about great explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Captain James Cook because they amaze me with their vision and courage. I like Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Pat Barker and many others.
What do you do when you aren’t reading or packaging books for others to read?
My lifelong passion has been Jazz. I left England for New York almost fifty years ago because I planned to spend six months savoring the music in great jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Five Spot, and I’m still here. I enjoy cooking and baking. I’ve been trying to make the perfect loaf of sourdough bread for several years and I’m getting closer but the end is not yet in sight.
Do you have any words for others who might be interested in volunteering?
I would urge people to volunteer at Books to Prisoners. By sending a book you might be giving someone a nudge in a direction they hadn’t considered, or you could be giving them a few hours of pleasure reading a mystery or a western. Books are often hard or impossible for inmates to obtain by other means.
I have found the people at Books to Prisoners to be very welcoming and eager to teach me how to answer letters and, later, to wrap packages. I’d thank Pat for the former and the master wrapper BZ for the latter. I have found common cause with the volunteers at Books to Prisoners and come to like them a great deal.
Thank you for talking with us today, Peter! We wish you great success with your baking (because you’re going to break your bread with us in celebration, right?)