Stephen King's thrillers are one of the most highly requested books in the prison system along with dictionaries and educational Spanish-English books. Photo by Sara Koopai
The most meaningful letter Andy Chan says he’s received probably isn’t like yours or mine — it’s not a letter we would keep in a shoe box full of cherished pictures of a long-lost loved one, or the kind attached to beloved memories of a family member. Instead, Chan remembers the letter he received from a Texas prisoner on death row, thanking Chan for sending him some used books.
Chan is the president of Books to Prisoners, the nonprofit organization operating out of a small space in the University Christian Church, located on the corner of 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 50th Street, that sends used books to prisoners all over the country by request. The organization receives about 1,300 letters from inmates a month.
Thousands of new donations are waiting to be sorted, and boxes of wrapped books ready to be shipped line the halls. Books are taken to the post office by the carload. Crates of books waiting to be wrapped are dated and crammed along a back wall. The rest of the shelves overflow with sorted books ready to be matched with a prisoner.
There are other small, unaffiliated Books to Prisoners program sprinkled across the country, but Seattle’s location receives letters from all corners of the United States.
“We get so many letters. It’s at least as many or more than we can really cope with,” Chan said. “But it’s still just a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket compared to the approximately two million people who are in some form of custody. It’s just minuscule … compared to the need.”
Stepping up to the demand
Books to Prisoners is somewhat an umbrella term for several organizations doing similar work to that of the U-District location. There is no central governing body for the volunteers in places as varied as New York, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, and even Canada. Most of the operations were founded by local independent book stores, including the Seattle location.
Longtime volunteer Kris Fulsaas, a UW Professional and Continuing Education instructor, said that around 1973, Left Bank Books, a self-described “fixture of the Seattle’s radical community,” started work on the Books to Prisoners project. When the project grew too big, it became its own entity.
As the incarcerated population ballooned and funding shriveled for prison programs deemed non-essential, Books to Prisoners was inundated with requests ranging from dictionaries to Stephen King novels.
“I don’t know where, but there are probably some quite well-funded and -stocked libraries, but those aren’t the ones that we hear from,” Chan said. “Typically, people are complaining that the books are dozens of years old, that the books are falling apart, that they haven’t seen any new books since they’ve been in — and these are people who have maybe been in prison like 20 years, so they really have read every damn book in the library.”
Fulsaas has heard similar reports from prisoners.
“Prisons in the South have the worst conditions for educational materials for prisoners,” she said. “One Texas prisoner wrote to tell us that the prison’s entire library fits on a stainless-steel kitchen cart that gets wheeled through the prison once a week — yet, because he was serving a life sentence, he’d read all those books on the cart.”
The need, Chan said, is apparent not only from prisoners’ anecdotes but also from librarians as well.
“I get at least one or two letters from prison libraries every week, as well as from librarians, saying, ‘Hey, can you send us anything? We’ll take anything. We have no budget,’” he said.
Chan said that, as prisons age, their libraries’ stock tends to stagnate and take on a lot of wear and tear from decades of use. But budgeting for books isn’t just a problem in established facilities.
“It’s the newer prisons — brand-spanking new facilities,” he said. “They may have space for a library, but they have no startup funds for buying books, so they rely entirely on donations.”
But as the prison system itself deems books non-essential and some people look at the time, effort, and money spent on stocking prison libraries as frivolous, the Books to Prisoners volunteers view it as an investment.
From prison to empowerment
“It sort of has to do with your philosophy of why people are incarcerated in the first place. … What are you expecting to see when that person leaves prison?” Chan said. “Do you want someone who is even more mad than they went in, and the only education they’ve been able to get is from their fellow prisoners … or do you want them to have had at least a spark of interest in something else — education, empowerment, those kinds of things?”
Fulsaas agrees that as even prison vocational training programs are cut, the materials Books to Prisoners sends out have become more important in fighting crime.
“I believe that education is a primary tool to enable prisoners to change their lives and avoid returning to prison,” she said. “[Our] focus is on sending books to individual inmates as a tool for empowerment and self-education.”
A volunteer with Books to Prisoners, a nonprofit organization, searches the organization’s many shelves of donated books for the ones requested by prisoners.
In addition to volunteers who find their way to the cramped little library by way of the UW’s service-learning program, word of mouth, and even court-ordered community service, a small core group of people — aptly named “keyholders,” for their possession of the keys to the office — keep the pages turning, said Fulsaas.
A passionate community of organizers
For 18 years, Chan has been reading letters, fundraising, and balancing Books to Prisoners’ checkbook. He was first referred to Left Bank Books after he immigrated to the United States and was looking for something to fill his time while he adjusted. Chan said he stayed because Books to Prisoners can’t function without an involved, core group.
“The organization is one which needs people who are willing to take on additional responsibilities,” he said. “The only way the organization really runs is if there are people who are willing to do the books, or raise money, or ask people to donate books … or to staff the place. It’s a lot of work, and I realized that I’m needed here.”
Chan said he was also willing to take on the difficult work that can turn many people off.
“You know, prisoners are not very cuddly, and they’re not the kind of people that people want to work with, typically,” he said. “It’s something that I sort of need to fill — and it’s a gap that needs filling. Here I am to fill it.”
Fulsaas began volunteering in 1980 after ending volunteer work with a collective alternative newspaper.
“I simply love working with all-volunteer, consensus-based projects — the dedication and harmony of the people who are involved with these types of organizations are what make them a pleasure to be involved in,” she said. “Not only are we doing good work, but we’re having a great time and discussing social issues, political theory, current events, etc., at the same time.”
Education: a never-ending demand
So, what do prisoners want to read? The most-requested books are educational materials, especially dictionaries.
“I estimate we could send out 50 a week if we could get our hands on that many,” said Kris Fulsaas, an instructor in the UW’s school of professional and continuing education and a longtime volunteer with Books to Prisoners.
Language books, namely Spanish-English dictionaries and books about learning English, round out a list of favorites that is telling of the state of the education of a typical prisoner. Basic math, spelling, writing, and science are all in demand, as well as technical books about subjects like mechanics and sailing.
“To me, depriving someone of reading material is my personal idea of hell, and I don’t judge prisoner book requests based on my personal reading preferences,” Kris Fulsaas, a UW Professional and Continuing Education Instructor and volunteer, said. “Great fiction can change a person’s outlook. It’s not just entertainment. That’s what TV is. Books expand a person’s mind.”
Other telling requests can be found on the walls and shelving in the Books to Prisoners office, where some particularly memorable letters, and even some pieces of artwork, are hung. Many request books with powerful central characters — one asks for a book on Napoleon. Another asks for empowered female minority characters. Fulsaas said lots of requests come in for books authored by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.
Andy Chan, the president of Books to Prisoners, said a few other popular requests might surprise some. Sun Tzu’s Chinese military treatise on acts and strategies of warfare, “The Art of War,” and works by Machiavelli are requested constantly. Many of their themes are also found in another high-demand work, Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power.”
Though genre fiction is also wildly popular — horror, fantasy, and mystery from the likes of Stephen King and Danielle Steele — Books to Prisoners sets a one-pound limit on fiction, while the nonfiction limit is double that.
“There’s a certain degree of internal controversy as to whether fiction has as much inherent educational value as nonfiction, and the preponderance of feeling was that nonfiction books are more educational,” Chan said. “And that’s why there’s a tighter restriction on people who are requesting only fiction books.”
Fulsaas said she’s proud to send out both fiction and nonfiction.
“As a lifelong fiction reader, I know that I’ve grown intellectually and had my worldview expanded by reading excellent fiction,” she said.
Some requests, of course, can’t be filled exactly, but Chan makes it known to entering volunteers that there is no reason for a request to go unanswered.
“Very, very occasionally we get a book request that makes us cringe. … We redirect that request with educational materials that hopefully will be a constructive influence on the person,” Fulsaas said. “I’m not sure of the exact statistic, but a high proportion of convicted sex offenders were themselves sexually abused. So, for example, we try to send materials to help someone heal from their own abuse and stop this vicious cycle.”
Though the Books to Prisoners location in Seattle is one of the more prolific organizations of its kind, its own home state had banned used books in its own prisons until last year. Despite the Washington State Department of Corrections’ order that shipments of used books be allowed into prisons, it left the final decision up to the superintendents of individual prisons.
Chan has been contacting Washington’s prisons for the past year to ask the superintendents to change their policies. Many won’t return emails, but only the Monroe Correctional Complex has flatly refused the change.
The decision came only after several test runs of the program were allowed in certain minimum-security prisons.
“We went through that with flying colors,” Chan said. “We didn’t do anything terrible. No riots ensued because we were able to send in used books.”
Chan said that, although convincing prisons one by one can be frustrating, many officials who hear him out are accepting of the program.
“There are many seemingly arbitrary rules and hoops that need to be jumped through in order to do some fairly innocuous work,” he said. “When somebody actually is willing to listen and have a dialog with us, and when we show that what we can do and how we can do it in a manner that is not injurious to individual facilities, things change.”
Leaving an impression
Chan said there are a few prisons left in Washington he has yet to reach. The Monroe prison at least has a relationship with the King County Library system. For now, Chan is sending test packages to some prisons to see if they’re returned. If he still can’t reach them within the year, he plans to return to Olympia and the Department of Corrections.
Inmates who write to Books to Prisoners represent facilities ranging from minimum-security detentions to death row and women’s prisons.
Chan and Fulsaas believe books can be a universal tool.
“Books can’t solve everything, but at least if [prisoners] have access to them, there is an opportunity for something to spark, for change,” Chan said. “That’s really what we think is the importance of at least getting them in there and starting someone’s interest in education.”
It’s rare that a volunteer will be privy to a prisoner’s offense, Fulsaas said, but the possibility of handling a letter from, say, a convicted murderer can still be important work.
“My personal feeling is that every single human being has the capacity for both good and evil, and helping a person who’s done something very wrong to become a better person helps society as a whole,” she said.
Some prisoners who receive books from the program will never get out. But it’s that belief in a humanity in everyone, Chan said, that could make the time spent incarcerated worthwhile, and the effort to bring literature, whatever the subject, to prisons worthwhile.
As for the death row inmate’s thank-you letter: The author would be executed within two weeks of sending the note, but Chan is still inspired by the bittersweet exchange.
“Whenever I think of that one … it’s very moving. Wow. We get lots of letters saying, ‘Thank you very much.’ … ‘It’s meant a lot to me over the years that I’ve been in prison,’ and stuff, but I always think about that one,” Chan said. “When I think about, ‘Does it make any difference?’ Yeah, it makes a difference.”
Reach reporter Alison Atwell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AlisonAtwell
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