The Inside Books Project: Helping Inmates

Today is going to be another one of those posts that isn’t about fat loss or training; no, it’s not about dogs.  Not today.  And while I don’t want to turn my site into a constant request to help out various groups I do want to talk about another one that I think is important today.

During the Volunteering at the Humane Society series, in Volunteering at the Humane Shelter Part 4 to be specific, I talked generally about why I think volunteering is good along with describing a second volunteer project I was involved with (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic which reads books onto digital media for those with any number of reading impairments).  I also mentioned briefly that I had made a new friend here in Austin who was involved with her own two projects.  Today I’m going to talk very briefly about one of them and in some detail about the other one of them.

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Food Not Bombs

The first is Food-Not-Bombs. I won’t make a hash of things by trying to describe it and will simply paste their description from their website:

Food-Not-Bombs shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spend another dollar on war?

It’s a nationwide organization food drive which, so far as I can tell, has a bit of an anarchistic bent (I’m basing this primarily on conversations with my friend who prefers to remain nameless here).  I don’t have much to add to that or say further.  If it’s something you’re interested in, get on their website and get involved.

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Inside Books: Introduction

The second project she was involved in, which interested me more on a personal level, and the one I want to talk about today in some detail is the Inside Books Project. I mentioned it previously before but want to talk about it in more detail.  And yes, there will be a request to help out from readers at the end.  Forewarned is forearmed.

In short, the Inside Books Project works to get books of varying sorts (see below) to prisoners incarcerated in the Texas Prison System.  Quoting from their website:

A wide range of studies agree that in-prison education reduces the likelihood of a prisoner committing another crime after his or her release. Many prisoners have few educational opportunities and limited access to libraries. (See “Post Correctional Education and Recidivism”.)

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IBP is the only organization of its kind in the state of Texas. We serve needs in the education of Texas prisoners that would otherwise go unmet by the state prison system. Inmates share information and resources they receive through our efforts, thus creating informal communities of literacy and learning. Please support our efforts on behalf of the prisoners.

Again, I don’t have much to add to that in general terms.  The goal of the Inside Books Project is pretty straightforward: they want to get books to inmates who want them, in an attempt to reduce recidivism.

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And Now You Know: The Importance of Reading

And just as with my involvement with the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic project, their overall goal is personally meaningful to me which is why I’m talking about it in more detail today.  As I talked about in some detail in Volunteering at the Humane Shelter Part 4, reading has always been a massive part of my life.  I’ve read continuously for as long as I can remember and I always get a little bit frustrated when people tell me “I don’t really like to read.”  I just can’t fathom it on any level.  I’m sure they can’t fathom what I get out of reading either.  Thus is the balance of the universe maintained.

More relevantly to today’s post, of far greater frustration to me is when people WANT to read (for either their own entertainment/enjoyment or their own education/knowledge) and, for whatever reason, can’t.  The reason why they can’t isn’t even important; if someone wants to do it and can’t, that bugs me.

In the case of the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, it’s a function of something that was completely out of the people who use the program’s control.  They didn’t choose to be born blind or dyslexic or with such severe ADHD that they can’t concentrate long enough to read productively.  They want to read but they can’t.  That’s a big part of the reason I’m still there consistently despite it being really boring (it’s better now that I’m a reader rather than just a director).

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Inmates Plus Books Equals…..

In the case of Inside Books Project, I suppose the situation is a bit different.  I’m quite sure we could argue endlessly whether or not prisoners, by dint of having committed a crime, are ‘due’ rights such as access to books or learning materials (or whatever).  Frankly, this is neither the time nor the place to argue about it as far as I’m concerned.  I won’t address it here nor do I want a big debate in the comments about it.  Please take it elsewhere.

The point so far as I’m concerned is that the inmates both want and need books for various reasons.  Part of it, I’m quite sure is simply to pass the time in their cell. While I can’t claim to even begin to empathize, I can at least relate; trapped in a cell of my own mind’s creation last summer, reading even junk books (I couldn’t concentrate enough to read anything real) helped me to pass the time.  Even now, I wish I could read more for pure enjoyment but there’s too much stuff in my field that I just don’t have (ok, don’t make) the time.

As much as I love reading,  I’m not the kind of snob who thinks that all reading should be good stuff.  Sometimes you just need something to keep your mind busy or off of something else.  Let’s just say I was glad this summer that Tom Clancy will put his name on any old trash.  The inmates need stuff (as my friend describes it, pulp fiction novels with Westerns apparently being quite popular; this is Texas after all) just to pass the day.  There’s a list of books they need/want below.

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But That’s Not All: Readin’, Writin’, and Rithmatic

But another part of that these folks want to educate themselves to improve themselves with the goal of avoiding coming back to prison again.  I don’t claim to have read the studies, there’s a link up above to the meta-analysis and, honestly, I’ll take the word of my friend that the research is there on the topic.

The bottom line to me is this: if education and knowledge prevents inmates from coming back once they get out, I don’t see any way not to get behind that.  What happened in their past isn’t that relevant so far as I’m concerned, if someone is actively working to make their life better, is in need of resources to do so, I think it’s worth supporting.

The website itself has a list of the books most commonly requested which can be found here.  I’ve reproduced the list below for those afraid of hyperlinks.

  • Dictionaries (English, Spanish-English, and Law)
  • Thesauri
  • Almanacs
  • Texas Criminal Law
  • Native American / Latino / African and African-American history, politics, culture
  • GED or Basic Education Materials
  • Foreign Language (Spanish)
  • How-to books (art, carpentry, any trades, business, etc.)
  • Westerns
  • Mythology
  • Wicca
  • Up-to-date science books, especially math

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Getting Involved

I can not claim to be massively involved with the Inside Books Project, I’ve yet to attend a meeting and everything I know is through my friend.   This post is one attempt of mine to help out in a more meaningful way as you’ll see in a second.

Which isn’t to say that I haven’t helped.  Very early on, I gave my friend a bunch of the books that had gotten me through the summer (including all of the afforementioned Tom Clancy Presents crap books).  I figured it was a better use for them than getting jack shit from Half-Price books selling them.

As it turned out, I was also able to help by putting my friend in touch with the folks at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic.  We read all kinds of books at the project and after being read onto digital media, they all sit on a bookshelf.  Some of them are available for purchase at a very low price, some of them are not for resale (a condition of the publishers who often donate books for free).

I worked it out with the folks who run the Austin branch of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and my friend was able to come in and take the books not for resale; as well, I donated some money and told her to buy whatever we had that she needed.  And to use whatever was left at Half-Price books or Amazon Marketplace to get what she needed.  My friend is a notorious DIYer who had been dumpster diving up to this point and I know that the money will be used in the best way possible.

As it also turned out, someone I knew online had a bunch of old textbooks that he couldn’t sell back for more than a pittance.  I told him I’d cover the shipping costs if he’d send them to me via USPS media mail (which is cheap as hell for books and other media) to donate to the Inside Books Project.  A few weeks later a big box of books arrived for my friend to look through.  I told her to take what she needed and that anything she couldn’t use directly could be sold to Half-Price and that money reinvested in what the inmates do need.

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And Now It’s Your Turn

And that leads into my request for help.  It’s not quite the plea that I made for Loretta (still doing well by all accounts) in Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter Part 5 but it is still important to me.  But this time I’m not just asking you to open your pocketbooks and donate money.  Make no mistake, if you want to donate directly to the Inside Books Project you can do it via Paypal and it is tax deductible.  But that’s not really my primary driver.

In my experience, the folks who tend to be into what I have to say and write about tend to be, hmm how do I say this politely…ah, screw it.  They’re nerds like me.  At least to some degree.  Which means that they tend to be voracious readers. And while some readers are packrats (I am about fitness related books) and hold onto everything they read, just as many like to free up shelf space by getting rid of what they don’t need.

And we all know that used bookstores invariably pay you pennies on the dollar; it’s rarely worth trucking the books down there for what they offer you for your books.  So I’m going to suggest a different outlet for those of you who may have books that you want to rid yourself of.  Send them to the Inside Books Project

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