Helping inmates roam world of words
QUINCY — In the basement of the United First Parish Church, six volunteers sit at round tables armed with scissors and clear packing tape. They cut up manila envelopes into single sheets of paper, then use each piece to carefully wrap up stacks of paperback books like birthday presents. Each package is secured with generous lengths of packing tape. Every couple of minutes, you hear the sound of “ZZZZZZT!” as someone pulls a fresh piece of tape from the roll to pack up more books.
The volunteers congregate every Tuesday night with a common goal: to help the Prison Book Program get reading materials into the hands of inmates. From this modest church basement, they have sent out thousands of books to prisons and jails all over the country. More than 4,400 books — most of them donated by individuals — have gone out to inmates since January, some 120,000 since 2004.
The program bills itself as the oldest and largest of its kind in the country, and it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. What began in 1972 as a grass-roots effort at a radical bookstore in Cambridge has developed into a full-fledged nonprofit that has served as a model for similar initiatives elsewhere. The Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis and another books-to-prisoners effort in North Carolina were both launched by former volunteers of the Prison Book Program.
The beginnings of the Quincy program can be traced to the Red Book Store in Cambridge, one of the first leftist bookstores in the area. In 1982, the volunteers moved their operations to the basement of the Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, where they stayed for 18 years, then to a small space on Arlington Street in Boston.
In 2004 the group settled into its present home in Quincy, in the basement of the United First Parish Church — also known as the “Church of the Presidents,” an 1828 Greek revival building that is the final resting place of two presidents and their wives. Downstairs, across the hall from the Adams family tomb, is a small room lined with bookshelves — that’s where thousands of books are sorted and stored. Volunteers prepare the books for mailing in a dining room farther down the hall.
The program is run on a shoestring budget — $32,000 a year, from various grants and donations — by volunteers including a teacher, an accountant, college students in their 20s, as well as retirees in their 60s. There is no paid staff.
Every Tuesday, starting at 6:30 p.m., the volunteers sift through stacks of handwritten letters from inmates seeking free books. They have quite a backlog: On a recent night, they were filling requests from inmates they received six months ago.
“We have more demand than ever before,” said Pam Boiros, one of the program’s longtime volunteers. An Avon native who now lives in Newton, Boiros has been volunteering at the Prison Book Program for more than a decade.
Books can be hard to come by in prison, according to Boiros. Inmates say they have limited access to prison libraries, and often the libraries are understaffed and inadequately stocked. The quality of the libraries and their offerings “really varies widely,” she said. Meanwhile, most correctional facilities don’t allow inmates to get books sent by friends and family; they can only come from a bookstore or publisher. But most prisoners can’t afford to buy books on their own.
That’s where the Prison Book Program comes in.
For Boiros, providing books to inmates is a no-brainer. She says inmates can turn to books to learn a trade, start a business, or prepare for the GED exam. “Wouldn’t it be better if they came out with more skills than when they came in?” she said.
In the church basement on a recent Tuesday, Boiros walked over to a box overflowing with correspondence from inmates and plucked out an envelope containing a folded piece of notebook paper. It was a handwritten note from an inmate in a federal prison in Florida asking for suspense and thriller stories.
She walked to the bookshelf and tried to find titles that matched his request. She pulled out two paperback copies of Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Michael Connolly’s “Blood Work.”
Boiros said the volunteers avoid sending true-crime books to inmates. “We think prison is violent enough,” she said.
The program does receive requests for all kinds of books: Native American studies. How to start your own business. GED prep materials. Books about the automotive and woodworking trades. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Books about or works written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Foreign language dictionaries. Westerns. Mysteries. Books about spirituality and religion.
Dictionaries are, by far, the most requested kind of book, said Boiros. More than 1,000 have gone out this year alone.
While it gets inundated with requests, the program receives many thank-you letters, too.
“We get letters from people saying, ‘You were my lifeline while I was inside,’ ” she said. One such letter came from an inmate at a Pennsylvania state prison, who explained how one particular book changed his life.
“At the age of 43 I was once again in prison. I was severely depressed and had no hope for ever breaking the cycle of drugs and prison. I was completely alone and contemplating suicide. That’s when I read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ ” he wrote. “I read her diary in one sitting and I have not been the same since. This little girl made this grown man cry. This little girl held mirrors up to me from every angle, making it impossible for me to avoid myself any longer. All my self-pity and blaming had disappeared. This little girl smacked me across the face and forced me to wake up.”
The inmate went on to say that he had successfully completed a six-month drug and alcohol treatment program and a course in automotive technology and was now taking an upholstery class.
“After reading about the Holocaust, I will no longer complain about prison food or clothing. I am completely aware of how fortunate I am, and this awareness will never leave me,” he wrote.
It is letters like the inmate’s that keep volunteers coming back to pack more books to mail.
“I love it,” said Christine O’Neill, a Belmont resident and longtime volunteer. “It’s tangibly rewarding. You’re so glad when you find a good book for someone. That’s very satisfying.”
“I love to read,” added O’Neill. “I know there are plenty of books that are just sitting around and so many letters” from inmates who would love to read them. “I’d go crazy if I didn’t have books to read.”
The Prison Book Program could always use more help, according to Boiros.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” she said. “You just need to show up.”
Volunteer shifts are available on Tuesday evenings during the summer months. In the fall, the volunteer hours are extended to include Thursdays and one Saturday a month.
To mark the program’s 40th anniversary, Boiros said the group held a volunteer appreciation event on May 8. “And this fall we plan to host a film screening to continue the celebrations,” she said in an e-mail. “We are also actively mentioning this milestone in our social media channels as a means to gather more support in the form of volunteers, book donations, as well as financial donations.”
The organization gets most of its books through individual donations, and monetary contributions help pay for postage. For more information, call 617-423-3298 or visit www.prisonbookprogram.org.