Hey all, it’s been a little bit since we nominated anybody to be Volunteer of the Month! (Almost a year, in fact.) In spite of – or perhaps because of – how stressful external conditions are right now, we’ve decided to get back into the groove and publish a series of VOTM interviews over the next few months.
Right now we’re distributed into bubble shifts – specific volunteers are only working with specific staff members, in order to reduce the number of potential COVID-19 vectors (and you can read more about our current structure here!) Because of this, we can’t really nominate individuals for VOTM as normal – instead, we’ll be putting together profiles of our different bubble shifts, to celebrate all of our volunteers who are currently helping us in spite of the plague.
Our first bubble profile is for Alex and Gail!
We asked them a few questions about their experiences volunteering with us:
What got you interested in BTP to begin with, or what made you start volunteering? Does it tie in to the rest of your life in any meaningful way?
Gail: I had just retired as Executive Director of a small nonprofit (City Fruit) in Seattle and was looking for a way to give back that didn’t involve meetings, raising money, or sitting on emails. Coincidentally, I attended a play staged at the Umatilla Correctional Institute in Oregon (my niece directed the drama program there) and was blown away by the sensitivity, passion and intelligence of the inmates who participated — and the fact that their lives were languishing behind bars. Books to Prisoners offered a concrete way to respond to that.
Alex: I had been wanting to get involved with an organization like this for a long time, but had difficulty finding volunteer opportunities that would work with my wacky theater schedule. I learned about Books to Prisoners online, saw that their hours would work for me, and decided to get involved. I have since also begun volunteering with Puget Sound Prisoner Support, and began attending paralegal school this summer – with hopes to someday work in legal aid or criminal justice.
Is there anything you especially like about volunteering with us? What are your favorite parts of the process?
Gail: I like the fact that you walk in the door and start to work. There is no down time. Every minute I volunteer with Books to Prisoners benefits prisoners.
Alex: Like everyone, I love reading and fulfilling letters. But I also love the people that I get to spend time with while volunteering. BTP is full of wonderful people.
Everybody starts off by responding to letters, even if they eventually move on to wrapping or other tasks. Some of the letters can be memorable. Are there any requests that surprised you, or that you remember standing out in any way?
Gail: I have a BA in English literature, so the requests that stand out to me are those (few) that request “Moby Dick” or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James. I also notice the people who want to learn something specific — such as calculus, Chinese, ASL, coding, or drawing.
Alex: Not particularly, but the ones with beautiful cursive definitely stand out. I’m a cursive writer myself and I worry we’re going extinct. It’s always nice to meet a fellow cursive writer! Also, when someone says they’re thankful to know people still see them as human… that always gets me. It’s hurtful that they’ve ever been made to believe they’re less than human.
In the time that you’ve been here, do you think that your views on the prison system, or what it’s like to be incarcerated, have changed? Please feel free to talk about those views if you would like.
Gail: No big change. If anything, my views have hardened. The system is inhumane. Who can justify putting a 65-year-old man in solitary confinement for years? Why is everyone in lock down these days? The system is a waste of human potential.
Alex: It hasn’t changed my views, but it has reinforced them. Our carceral system is unjust and cruel – and there is no amount of reform that could make it work.
Do you have any book recommendations for us? Is there anything you especially like to read in your spare time?
Gail: I’m a self-taught artist. I recommend the many well-written ‘how-to’ books on art — drawing, portraits, watercolor, oil painting, etc. Prisoners are interested in these books, and there is much material available.
Alex: My favorite book this year is probably Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, followed closely by Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottleib.
Are there any other parting words that you’d like to share with whoever’s reading this?
Gail: Don’t forget those people you can’t see. Prisons are sited far away, so we don’t have to see or deal with them — or the people inside them. As is evident from their letters, incarcerated people are as interesting, varied, creative, curious and frustrated as the rest of us.
Alex: Volunteer! Get involved in community-led efforts towards restorative justice and abolition. 🙂
We hope to be back next month with another bubble profile for our current volunteers – stay tuned!