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June 20, 2016

Some just want a good story – Bo-Won Keum, MFA GD ’17

by bkeum

A sentence in prison can range anywhere from a month to a lifetime. Unfortunately, in American prisons, access to books —or any kind of media at all—is treated as a privilege, not a right.

Most correctional facilities do not allow books to be sent directly to inmates from friends and family. Instead, books must be sent through “pre-approved vendors”, usually expensive booksellers and publishers. Many prisoners can’t afford to take on these expenditures themselves—most don’t even have Internet access to order books or money to pay for them. Many prison libraries are in deplorable condition, and access to these libraries are often restricted based on pre-determined factors that are beyond an inmate’s control.

The normal prison library was shut down, ostensibly out of fear that prisoners from different units would be able to communicate with one another by passing notes back and forth in the books. Not too long after that, the legal library was closed, apparently for the same reason. Because of the nature of my crime, I was initially denied any right to touch the prison computers for email or to check my commissary balance. I wasn’t allowed to enroll in the only educational course of any value to me (Spanish) because it was a self-taught class using the Rosetta Stone software.

Testimony from Stephen Watt, who served from 2010–2012. Courtesy of The Marshall Project.

As a response, the number of nonprofit organizations that seeks to address these issues has increased with the explosive prison population. There are currently over thirty known programs donating books to prison inmates on a regular basis. Books to Prisoners Seattle is one of the oldest of such organizations, delivering reading materials and fighting for a better standard of wellbeing of the incarcerated for over forty years.

I am a returning visitor to Books to Prisoners. I came to it first last summer when I was visiting it and three other organizations in order to, as a research project, document their catalog of donated books and scan letters that they receive from inmates. These letters range from requests for simple and straightforward lists of book titles, written like restaurant orders, to lengthy and impassioned essays describing their situations. Some seek to gain knowledge in a specialized interest; some want to gain skills; and some just want to read a good story.




But no matter what the nature of the request is, each letter always remains earnest, polite, and heartbreakingly thankful.

This time, I come not as a one-off visitor, but as a long-term volunteer, working to contribute to their cause in more immediate ways. The initial proposal through the Maharam focused heavily on what I imagined would be research development on their archiving and record-keeping system—of what books were going through, of what restrictions were being imposed on the package in each facility, of demographic information related to the prisoners making the requests. A conversation with Michelle upon my arrival, however, made the steps for moving forward in this particular endeavor trickier than I had initially thought.


Books to Prisoners, Seattle WA

The restrictions imposed on packages are ways in which individual facilities control the materials flowing into the system. Prisons often ban books with erotic, violent, and politically radical content, but they can also ban hardcovers, magazines, and secondhand books. In order to ensure that packages are sent to prison inmates successfully, Books to Prisoners refers to these restrictions each time they mail an individual package out to a prisoner. While I had assumed that these lists had been compiled according to regulations that each prison had made publicly available, I found out that these lists are compiled from years of trial and error conducted by each book program. They are also unique to each book program—facility regulations imposed on Books to Prisoners, for example, can be very different from those imposed on LGBT Books to Prisoners in Madison WI.

This makes creating a national prison book program database hard.

What I can focus my attentions on right now, however, is on a couple of things. One is a pdf document about the book-packing process that we can make accessible for first-time and infrequent volunteers on the website; they can look at it to get a better sense of what to expect when they arrive and also refer to it when they get come back after a long stretch of time. Another is the document that I hope will be able to contain some of these stories. Michelle tells me about a staff effort to publish some of the letters that failed some time ago, simply because there wasn’t a lot of time, energy, and knowledge on how to develop the project. I know how to do books—I’m a graphic designer. It’s a perfect project for me to take on, especially because it feels a lot like what I was trying to do last year.

“But this feels different,” I remember explaining earnestly to two friends over dinner. “The project that I was pursuing last year was driven solely by my own interests in knowing more about the movement, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was mining information from these organizations… This at least feels collaborative. I would be proud to release this document knowing that it comes from a transparent and cooperative exchange.”

I hope this is true. I hope my actions can match the self-asserted confidence that I seem to project with these words. But a lot of those fears still remain. I think about the conversation that I had with Kevin in 123 Dyer Street, a week before I flew out to Seattle. I confessed that I was nervous of marching into the program as an outsider. I told him that I didn’t want to be accused of sensationalizing something or of creating a spectacle that champions only my efforts as a researcher. I didn’t want to come in and disregard the efforts of volunteers who don’t have the luxury of looking at this as a thing that was ‘interesting’, who come in instead with a mindset of bringing change in the most effective way possible…

But maybe what I’ve really come to terms with in the last two weeks is that having that perspective—of seeing this activity as a strange, fascinating, wonderful, perplexing, sentimental, and deeply complex thing—is okay. There is great value to bringing efficiency to a system, of improving record-keeping, of building statistics, of streamlining a production process. It’s the kind of information that can be pointed to to engage policy makers, to receive better funding and reach out to greater amounts of prison inmates in the country.

But how do we change not policies, but attitudes? How do we kindle empathy and kindness? How do we compel people to act, not because it feels like the morally righteous thing to do, but out of love for another human being?

People in prison ask for books, not because their lives necessarily depend on getting access to composition books, to thesauruses, and to copies of 50 Shades of Gray, but because they are, like any of us, trying to find meaningful ways to spend the time that is given to them. Those of us who live outside of prison walls say that we are lucky to not know what life in prison would be like, but I think we get a glimpse of it everyday when we are angry, when we are frustrated, and when we are lonely. Access to things in our lives—to music, to movies, to books, to exercise, to greenery, to health, to fulfilling relationships with people—is what prevents us from acting out. What are we left with when those luxuries are taken away from us?


Maybe I can explain this with an anecdote:

On my second day, as I was talking to Michelle, we were interrupted by four heads poking in the doorway.

“Hey—is this Books to Prisoners?”

Four tan, eager-eyed and hunky college boys entered the basement with their pastel-colored shorts and fraternity T-shirts. They had come on the referral of a brother who recommended the program as “a good way to get their service hours in.” (Books to Prisoners outreaches in order to get enough volunteers to run its operations; many of them come from general community service groups.) Michelle swiftly gave them a forty-five minute orientation on what they were supposed to do for the day.


As they nestled themselves into the stacks with a letter in each of their hands, I strained my ears to overhear their conversation. What would they make of experience after reading the letters? One of them says, “Dude, the fucked up thing is that a lot of them are in prison for like, one mistake that they made.” It’s poignant, and I was struck by this moment of compassion.

“Yeah,” says another in response. “I mean, maybe, but the majority of them… like, they probably deserve to be there…”

I stayed silent because the comment made me sad. People might tell me that it didn’t matter, that they still packed the books and did their service time and, effectively, made some inmates somewhere across the country happy with the selection that they were able to make. But no matter how efficient we get at book packing, at fundraising, at getting more volunteers working in the basement—if we continue to distance ourselves by looking at systems and situations rather than listening to individuals and hearing stories, than our efforts don’t really get anywhere. The narrative doesn’t change; people in prison are there because they are bad people, not because of decisions that they make or circumstances that they find themselves in.

(Photos have been manipulated to preserve anonymity of its subjects.)

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