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July 29, 2016

In the heart of tech, there is Books to Prisoners, Bo-Won Keum, MFA GD ’17

by bkeum

[This post is late, but was definitely written to be posted on July 18—please keep this in mind as you read!]

For this post, I’d like to reflect on how heavily this experience has been marked by the theme of technology.

Seattle is tech. I pass by both an Apple and a Microsoft store on my way to shop for groceries. All of my college acquaintances who I’ve reconnected with are attached to the biggest names in tech. New people I meet ask me who I’m interning for this summer, Microsoft or Amazon. And hit recently by the phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the city feels especially strange to me as my commute to work—a 20 minute walk uphill to the University District—is marked by passing by crowds of students whose faces are determinedly glued to their iPhone screens.

The basement under the United Christian Church, where Books to Prisoners, is, however, a place frozen in time. Or is rather a place that eschews the concept of time altogether. Whatever happens above ground—another sports event, another shooting, a new Pokemon stop—in Books to Prisoners, the rhythm is the same. Michelle greets you when you walk in; sometimes Birch or Catherine at the packing station, ripping tape from the rolls and checking addresses. You sign in your name on a sheet attached to a clipboard and make your way through the boxes to the long tables, where a stacked row of letters wait. There aren’t any screens in the basement, save for the one on the Dell laptop that Michelle and the other staff members use to mark returns. If it’s a Thursday, the community jazz band is rehearsing in the auditorium next door. Dave from the Food Bank down the hall also would make an appearance to give us cupcakes and boxes of chocolate that they couldn’t distribute at the Food Bank, but they moved to their shiny, new location three blocks away in mid-June, so we don’t see Dave anymore.

If you are a first time volunteer, Michelle gives you an orientation at 6:30. You sit down on the long table together and Michelle walks you through why BTP exists—how there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States in facilities that don’t provide quality rehabilitation programs, that don’t maintain good recreational facilities, that can barely keep a library open longer than once a week. How programs like Books to Prisoners exist because prisoners want to build vocational skills, study for GED exams, and/or simply be able to give themselves something to occupy their minds with during the day, and the state of many facilities are such that they are unable to do so through the institution.

As a volunteer, your job is to read the letters that the prisoners write to Books to Prisoners, asking for books. You read the letter and then go through the library of the books—a motley collection of books donated over the years—and make your selection, keeping in mind the facility restrictions that have been written down for you on the envelope by a staff member. These restrictions are how prisons regulate the books coming in—many require that they all be paperback, but many also restrict the number of books that can be sent to a single prisoner at a time and the conditions of the book. (Some prisons ask only for new books, which is ridiculous.)

Once you’ve made your selection, you weigh the books on the scales. Books to Prisoners sends its packages through the USPS, which charges according to package weight. In order to save postage and serve as many prisoners as it can, BTP can only send 1 to 2 pounds of books per package. And in order to ensure that each package is worth its postage, BTP asks its volunteers to try and round to the nearest pound, oftentimes by adding a smaller book to the selection (even if it’s not what the prisoner requests.)

“Chances are that even if the prisoner doesn’t like it, he/she can donate it to the prison library or pass it onto a friend,” Michelle reasons. “We have never gotten a complaint about getting an unsolicited book—how can we?”

The volunteer then fills out an invoice and mailing label, copying the address found on the letter by hand. He/she ties a rubber band around the package and then adds it to the pile of books that are then packaged by staff, who wrap them and deliver the books to the post office on Wednesdays.

“You guys should host gift-wrapping parties here,” I remember saying once.

“I mean, this already is gift-wrapping party,” Birch responded with a smile.

Birch is a staff member who had been with Books to Prisoners for a year and a half. He comes down least 10 hours a week to a space is open only 16 hours a week. He does not get paid for his work. I learned that he used to be in tech himself—that he had started a company with a classmate after college and after achieving a fair amount of success, realized that he was not happy. He quit his job and dedicated his time to volunteering full-time at various organizations. He is vegan and lives in a co-op.

I don’t mean to romanticize, but there’s something so striking about the way in his journey to find meaningful work—packing books in basements, lugging boxes in food banks—happen in the heart of tech, where so many of my undergraduate (and graduate) colleagues envision themselves finding success. And while the process of book packing is an admittedly slow one—the current backlog of letters date to May of this year—the process to me represents more than its service given to prisoners in need of reading material. The experience of volunteering at Books to Prisoners is also the experience of making out handwritten messages on lined paper, of running one’s fingers past book titles in the stacks, of writing addresses by hand in pen and taking in the names of streets and drives in states that they will remember because they didn’t copy-paste it with a button. To me, the experience represents a call for contact and for greater connection. This is what Books to Prisoners has taught me thus far.

(I’ve also included another version of the resource guide, meant to be printed out by volunteers and folded into a booklet for easier transport.)


(Updates on the book will be in the next post—for now, I’ll just leave with an email from Birch:)

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