Handwritten letters. Who writes letters by hand nowadays? I think the last one I wrote, except for those little notes within birthday cards, was a year ago or so, to send a recipe to a friend as part of a wedding gift. My hand cramped up. But a couple of days ago, it became clear to me how personal handwriting is, when I volunteered to package books to go to prisons through a volunteer group called DC Books to Prisons. Prisoners across the country have the opportunity once every five months to write this group and ask for a few books.
The letters came on lined paper, sometimes on half of piece of paper that has been folded and then torn neatly in half. (The lead volunteer pointed out that it is very difficult for prisoners to afford paper or stamps.) The handwriting was almost always in neat print, with a little bit of a cursive touch to it – some of the handwriting was very beautiful. These handwritten notes have power to them, asking in such a neat, polite manner for books on this subject or that, with some of the personality coming through in the writing itself. I found myself really connecting to the writer and wanting to help – imagining that these people (all men in my case) want to improve their lives, become better people. This is no doubt a little naive for one to two prisoners, but the wish to improve clearly came across in most. Some of what the prisoners were asking for included woodworking books, the history of the Midwest, and self-help books about positive thinking. One studying for his GED wanted a pre-algebra book. Some asked for books on anything.
About 20 of us volunteers spent several hours searching a mini-library of donated books to select books that came at least somewhat close to matching requests.
There are some things that were in short supply. Crafts books, legal, dictionary and reference books. Books about music. And there were some things that we could not send at the prison’s request. The prison staff would write on the outside of the envelope what was allowable. For instance, “paperbacks only,” though some prisons allowed hardbacks (which was good for the kid studying algebra). A prisoner wrote that metal spiral spines were not allowed. We were not allowed to put any papers together with paperclips.
Also, as one hunted for books, one often wondered/thought/imagined if certain books were the best suited. For instance, I vacillated a while in finding an American history book – the only two general American history books on the shelves were cartoon history books. But if I sent that, would that be insulting? Would the prisoner laugh, or would others laugh at him? I put the cartoon history books back, and wound up diving instead through some National Geographics to find different American history articles.
After selecting the books, I wrote a short note (when allowed by the prison), sometimes explaining the book choices (“we didn’t have what you wanted, but I thought you might like this instead…”), sometimes just saying that I hoped he enjoyed the books. At the recommendation of the DC Prisons to Books, I signed my name with “one-time volunteer,” so the prisoners would not send a thank-you note to me specifically, or even want to start a pen-pal relationship. Some long-term volunteers at Books to Prisons do develop a pen-pal relationship somewhat – as much as one can when a letter is sent once every five months.
I really enjoyed this – and my mom the former librarian would be so proud. (Mom, you would have so enjoyed this project!). I now know where my old dictionaries, almanacs, textbooks and other books are going – the place is so strapped for books in some areas that I sent one prisoner a 20-year-old almanac. (The shelves did have much more recent dictionaries, but he specifically wanted an almanac). With about 1% of America’s adults in prisons (the graphs here are freaky!), more are needed: technical books, self-help, language, and just plain fascinating books.
I learned through those handwritten notes, how much these prisoners appreciated books – when they could get them. Without easy access, just one book seemed something to cherish – more than the rest of us often do, we who can just walk into a bookstore/library and get what we need.
So thank you DC Books to Prisons for organizing this. About 40-50 prisoners each week have the opportunity to cherish books as a result.