Some evenings, after a full day of work, you can find me in a church basement bundling up books and writing notes to prisoners.
Normally, I haven’t eaten dinner yet. I just go straight there from the office on the bus. The small room smells like paperbacks and cardboard and coffee even though there is no coffee to be found. Stacks of books line the walls. Folding tables hold scales and stamps, pens and paper.
The small space is typically bustling with volunteers. First, we carefully read a letter that has been pre-screened and stuffed into an old shoe box. Then we set about selecting, weighing, and wrapping the books we picked out for each inmate. Each package also goes out with a short handwritten note.
It’s a funny scene; people with a half puzzled, intently searching look, wandering slowly- sometimes even into each other- holding a letter in one hand and a potential book in the other. This might work…but is there a better one? We stand up on tipy-toe to see if the right book might be up on that shelf over there. One asks another with gravitas, “have you seen any zombie mystery novels?” While we might grin occasionally, there’s really no judgment here. The volunteers all seem to respect the inquiries, no matter what they are. Generally, we don’t know much about the letter writers but I think we must all imagine that our own requests would be just as diverse or possibly strange, revealing an intimate part of ourselves to a stranger.
I find it curious, reading the requests from these brothers and sisters- the ones we’ve decided to lock in uninspired standardized cells for years on end. Each letter is different, just as the authors must be. It’s oddly satisfying to snoop through the stacks of donated books, looking for just the right one to match the personality, the handwriting, the inquiry. To answer the unspoken question that comes though the handwritten pages, “does anyone out there care about me?” with a resounding: “yes, and here it is, the perfect book for you, friend.”
The last time I went in, I really was too tired to be of much use, but I’d gotten an email saying I had a response letter waiting for me. A letter? I hurried to retrieve it.