Books Behind Bars

It’s probably time to come clear about my prison record.

No, if you just scrolled down fast to find out what I was in for, my prison experiences are third-hand, at worst. I don’t even watch the prison shows on cable. My interest in prisons, beyond staying out of them, is minimal. For one thing, I don’t believe I’d get along with the wardens.

Maybe I’ve just found the wrong wardens. I suspect there are good, strong, high-minded wardens, just as I believe there are good, strong, honest politicians. So far, though, I have not run across really book-minded wardens.

A man called once, wondering what we did with the leftover books after the Book Fair. I get these calls, and, frankly, I have been getting more of them lately. The word has gone out that there’s gold in Book Fair leftovers. But this was back in the days before I had entrepreneurs fighting over what my customers leave behind.

This man was a prison librarian in a state—not Illinois—where the law required all prisons to have libraries. He worked, however, for a warden whose philosophy was “Okay, we have a library. The law doesn’t say there have to be books in it.” The prison librarian, who was not an inmate and had some savings he could spend, wanted to know if he could rent a truck and come get our leftovers.

My response was “Show me.” If you want to see a desperate man, a Book Fair manager with leftovers someone promised to pick up but didn’t will do for a start. I could not believe anybody was going to drive in from out of state to load a lot of books on a truck to take to a prison.

But he did it. And he told me later the inmates were thrilled by this massive load of books for an empty library. He was ready to do it again the following year: his library was full, but he knew there were other prison libraries in his state with no books.

Never heard from him again. I don’t know whether he died, was reprimanded for causing so much excitement, or just ran out of money. I suppose it’s unfair of me to blame it on the warden, but I still regard him as a suspect in the case.

Some years after that, I had a letter from an address that was mainly numbers. It came from a man not in Illinois nor in the state in the previous story. He was on Death Row, and wondered if I had any books I was going to throw away. He and his fellow Death Row residents had time on their hands, he said, and wouldn’t mind reading damaged books.

I asked around the Newberry to see whether anybody thought I was walking into a trap. The consensus was that if I had books to throw away, I might as well throw a couple in the direction of Death Row and see what happened. The man had mentioned philosophy, and I had just had a donation from a college student who was overly handy with a highlighter. I packed up a small box and sent it by the cheapest postage to the prisoner number, care of the state involved.

I got a thank you note a month later. He’d always heard about Plato, and was glad to get that. The odd volume of the Summa Theologica was being passed from hand to hand like nobody’s business.

We’d piled up a few other books that we thought fit the bill: Aristotle, a couple of history books, a couple of science books—he had mentioned the night sky and the time inmates had for stargazing. Another thank you note followed. I sent about six packages of books, all told, and he reported that he had become sort of the Death Row librarian.

Then I had a letter from the warden, asking me to stop wasting my postage. The books I was sending were being thrown away by security before they reached the prisoners, so it was useless of me to send them. I did wonder how my correspondent had thanked me for specific books if he never actually saw them, but the warden was not interested in discussing it, and did not reply to my letter.

I found out later that he had written in the wake of a prison break involving Death Row inmates. I never learned whether the man who had written was involved, and whether those astronomy books had been part of the plot. (Learning the stars can be helpful in making your way across country.) Or shutting off the flow of books may have been a means of punishing the truants.

So my record with prisons, and prison wardens, is not something to brag on. One never knows. Maybe there are wardens who come to the Book Fair and pick out reading material to take back to what one of my donors called “the Hard Rock Hotel”. Maybe even now one of them is trying to think of a way to hold a Book Fair in his prison. He won’t have one of my problems, at least: there’ll be dozens of volunteers to go out and pick up donations.

Comments

It depends on the prison, and doesn't seem to be uniform. I suppose it may be a policy that each warden can decide for themselves. At some prisons only new books, in sealed packages, are allowed in. (So, for example, books from Amazon.) Used books lovingly packed by a prisoner's loved ones are returned to sender. This saves the prison staff from the chore of flipping through the books looking for coded messages or hand files. I think that's a rotten policy.

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