This is what Pa. prisoners want to read — and the Pittsburgh group making that possible

“Your mind can still be free, and it’s the only thing that can still be free.”

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Twice a month, or more, volunteers gather in a basement library at the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield with a stack of letters from prisoners across Pennsylvania.

The letters are not appeals for legal assistance. They are not pleas of innocence. Instead, they simply contain requests for books that the letter writers say help make their time in confinement — sometimes solitary — both more bearable and productive.

On the receiving end of these letters is the Book ‘Em group, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization based out of the Thomas Merton Center.

Jodi Lincoln, a Book’ Em committee member and the group’s unofficial librarian, said the organization sends an average of 200 to 250 packages a month out to prisoners across the Commonwealth, each with one to three books, depending on their weight.

The subjects of those books vary wildly — everything from photography to adult cooking to trades and vocations to UFOs and the paranormal to legal dictionaries.

“I think there’s a large understanding that if you’re trapped behind prison walls and incarcerated, your mind can still be free and it’s the only thing that can still be free,” Lincoln said. “No one can stop you from thinking or learning even though you might be locked away.”

“We get letters from people in solitary [confinement], and they talk about how they have nothing else to do with their day. So books are the only thing to kind of keep them distracted and keep their mind off their situation.”

Of course, there is a long history of popular depictions of the heightened power ordinary books possess behind bars. Often these depictions are found in books themselves: Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Jack Henry Abbott’s “In the Belly of the Beast” and “Prison Studies” by Malcolm X.

A book shelf in the Book 'Em library inside the Thomas Merton Center on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

Book shelves in the Book 'Em library inside the Thomas Merton Center on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

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At the same time, states across the U.S. are pushing to limit prisoner access to outside books — many citing safety concerns — while vocational and educational programs, particularly those focused on providing prisoners with GEDs, disappear from institutional budgets. In 2017, the Literacy Project Foundation found that three out of five people in U.S. prisons can’t read.

For these reasons, organizations like Book ‘Em see their role as increasingly vital and not just for the escapism these books provide inmates, but for their role in reducing recidivism rates and preparing some prisoners for reentry into the workforce.

“A lot of people on the inside are thinking about what they’re going to do next, and it’s really important to empower those people to come out of prison and back into society capable of getting jobs,” Lincoln added.

A 2013 Post-Gazette profile of Book ‘Em quotes a prisoner named Jesse at SCI Frackville who wrote to Book ‘Em asking for “anything that relates to offshore drilling.” Jesse explained he wanted to pursue that career upon his release.

Lincoln says this is fairly typical.

Some prisoners request books not available in the prison library. Others say they’ve read every title the prison library had available.

Book ‘Em gets thousands of these requests a year. In fact, the most sought after book categories by Pennsylvania prisoners include the following, according to Book’ Em:

  • Small-size dictionaries
  • Mythology
  • Alternative religions
  • Fitness
  • Yoga/meditation
  • Information on how to start a business
  • Trades/ skills/ how-to
  • Puzzles/ games
  • Photography
  • Gardening
  • Culinary
  • Comics/ graphic novels
  • Urban/ street/ hood fiction
  • African-American fiction and non-fiction
  • Adventure/ survival
  • UFOs/ paranormal
  • Adult coloring books
  • Cartooning/ how-to-draw
  • Books about music or musicians
  • Guides to playing instruments
  • Introductory language books (specifically Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, Italian and Arabic)
  • Horror
  • Vampires
  • Westerns
  • True Crime
  • Black’s Law Dictionary

On Sunday, Book ‘Em leaders and a group of roughly 10 volunteers gathered in the Thomas Merton Center’s basement library to answer dozens of them.

Each volunteer grabbed a letter with a correctional facility’s return address and an Inmate’s ID Number to see what kind of books were being requested. Then they hit the stacks, which are organized by genre, to find what they needed. Lincoln said some requests are more specific than others.

“You pick a letter, you read it and it will have the prisoner request and then you go hunting. Sometimes the letter is very specific: ‘I like James Patterson’ and ‘Can you send me a book about the Roman Empire?’ And so you go to the James Patterson section and the Greek and Roman history section and you select your books. Sometimes they’re really broad: ‘I’m interested in history, and I like books about art.’ And one of the things the volunteers really enjoy, and which makes it an engaging volunteer opportunity, is that process of picking out what you think would be really good to send prisoners.”

Suzanne Powell, a retired teacher and Book ‘Em leadership member, told the Post-Gazette in 2013, “One inmate wrote, ‘I’m in solitary: Please send me the thickest books you have,’ so I sent ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘War and Peace.'”

For bibliophiles convinced of literature’s transformative power, it is an ideal way to apply that belief. But Book ‘Em always needs more bibliophiles, and more volunteers and more books — more everything.

In 2017, Book ‘Em spent $8,330.98 on shipping some 2,530 packages.

The Book ‘Em organization itself has been operating since 2000 and Lincoln has been a member for the past two years. It began, she explained, with a group of prisoner advocates at the Thomas Merton Center, a social justice organization, and an idea. It grew from there.

“In the past few years, there’s been a lot more education and public attention put on mass incarceration issues in the U.S. There’s been a lot of criticism of the justice system, that as a whole we’re imprisoning too many people who don’t deserve to be behind bars. There’s also criticism and more skepticism of re-entry systems and how we treat people coming out in terms of jobs and housing markets. So I think education around those issues in general has really stepped things up in the past few years in terms of activating the community around [Book ‘Em].”

Lincoln said packing sessions are normally held at 4 p.m. inside the Thomas Merton Center on the first and second Sunday of each month — and third if the budget allows for it.

“Volunteers are always needed to come help read letters, pick and pack books, and/or drive packages to the post office,” the group’s website implores. Updates about packing sessions are provided on Book ‘Em’s Facebook page.

Donated books can be dropped off at the Thomas Merton Center at 5129 Penn Ave. in Garfield between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Books can also be dropped off during packing sessions — again, typically on the first and second Sunday of each month. Pickups of book donations can also be arranged via Facebook or email. Tax-deductible monetary donations are always welcome.

Worth noting for potential donors is the list of prohibited reading materials in Pennsylvania prisons.

According to an October 2017 PennLive report, “Until recently, Pennsylvania’s list of banned materials included quite a few head-scratchers: a book of Pablo Picasso paintings, the State Employees’ Retirement Code and a tourism brochure promoting ‘scenic Route 6’ barred for purported sexual content, not for security reasons.”

In 2015, Department of Corrections officials made changes to the list and reduced it from some 2,000 items to just a few dozen.

“We had a lot of things on that list that should have never been,” Diana Woodside, the Department of Corrections’ policy and legislative director, told PennLive. “The department was overzealous in censorship and Secretary [John Wetzel] said we had to change that.”

And while corrections officials say some books are still being misused by inmates and that artistic exceptions are being exploited in order to import content with nudity, the department has ultimately shifted its position to favor the bookworm and users of services like Book ‘Em.

In an email to The Incline on Wednesday, a DOC spokesperson said an even greater policy shift could be on the horizon.

“Given the fact that paper products are a primary delivery method for contraband and the continued risk to staff from hazardous contraband, the DOC continues to explore other options for the future, among them making available e-books.”

If such a shift is adopted by the state, Lincoln said Book ‘Em would find a way to make e-books available, too. But she expects demand for print products to continue.

“If that [policy shift] is ever implemented, we would definitely look into ways of including e-books in our services. I’m not worried that it would make us obsolete, though. E-book readers are expensive, and e-books are typically not free, so many prisoners with limited financial resources would not be able to take advantage of the policy change.”

Lincoln added. “Plus lots of people everywhere still prefer physical books they can hold in their hand…”