Books behind bars
Tucked away on the basement level of an alley off of Champion Street sits a small, dark room filled with thousands of books. When the heavy, metal door is opened, visitors are greeted with the smell of wood and worn books. The 19 bookshelves that are lined along walls and arranged in aisles take up most of the space, leaving only enough room for a table, a desk and some boxes.
For Erik Thomas, this room is where he and several others volunteer each Monday night to send books and letters to prisoners around the country. Thomas is the director of Bellingham Books to Prisoners, a branch of a larger nonprofit program based in Seattle. The Bellingham location was established nearly 10 years ago.
Bellingham is one of four branches of Seattle Books to Prisoners, which was founded in the 1970s. Portland, Oregon and Olympia also have the program in place.
Prisoners can send in requests for books to the Seattle office, which distributes those letters to the other locations. For Bellingham’s branch, it means they send hundreds of books a month, all over the country, Thomas said.
Books to Prisoners President Andy Chan said in an email that the program has been receiving roughly 1,400 letters a month this year. Chan said this program is popular because it fills a need for prisoners.
“They are so excited to know – given that many have been shunned by their family and friends – that someone cares,” Chan said. “It reminds them of their own humanity.”
All books are carefully hand-picked by volunteers who choose at least three books to send back to each prisoner.
Most recipients of the books are in state penitentiaries, due to the time-consuming process of the program. Sometimes, inmates won’t receive their books for months, Thomas said.
“They are so excited to know – given that many have been shunned by their family and friends – that someone cares. It reminds them of their own humanity.”
Some prisons, such as Washington State Penitentiary located in Walla Walla, have tightened restrictions so much that they now only accept books from Amazon, not programs or private citizen donations.
For Belle Shalom, this program has been part of her life for years. Shalom has been attending the weekly packing meetings for nearly eight years.
“I read about it in the paper,” Shalom said. “The two people who started this, maybe seven or eight years ago, wrote an article. It interested me and I’ve been coming ever since.”
Shalom is one of many regular volunteers for this program. Her dedication to the group stems from her love for books, she said.
“I love reading, and I think a book can change a person’s life.” Shalom said. “And if it does – one life – that’s good enough.”
Chan said people volunteer with Books to Prisoners because they feel connected to the cause in some way. He said they get several friends and family of inmates; some are even former inmates themselves. Some are librarians or educators who know the value of reading Chan said.
The trickiest part of sending the books is the restrictions, Thomas said. When a request is sent to the Seattle office, restrictions are written on the envelope. Each prison is different, and Texas has their own set of separate restrictions, but all share the same core limitations.
Most books sent out are required to be paperback. All books must not contain nudity, pornography or even prison escape stories. Thomas said some rules can be a little tricky to work around.
“If there’s some book of beautiful classical art, and there’s 27 little cherubs that aren’t wearing underwear, we might either choose to give them little sharpie bikinis or send it to some other state,” Thomas said.
Chan said they get returns to the Seattle branch for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the books don’t look new enough, a prisoner might have moved or a package might have too many books.
Shalom said finding books to fit a prisoner’s specific request can be difficult. While they have much to choose from, there isn’t always a book to fit the needs of the inmate. To make up for this, Thomas said they usually send multiple books of the same genre or topic.
Its library is vast, to say the least. Topics include sheet music, cults, WWII, fiction, magic, birds, parenting and diseases. Thomas said law books are in high demand because inmates often want to read up on their charges or want to work on an appeal.
Thomas said types of books that the program needs more of include paperback dictionaries, “how to draw” books, puzzle books, law dictionaries, urban fiction, books written in Spanish and GED material.
While book donations are always happily accepted, Thomas said they are in desperate need for monetary donations as well. The program has a 4-pound limit on all packages, but the cost to ship books across the country can get pricey. Thomas said 95 percent of all money donated goes to postage costs.
Donations can be mailed, given through PayPal, sent through their website or dropped off at their office.
The Bellingham Books to Prisoners website is bellinghambtp.org. Their office is located at 228 Champion Street, Suite 105.