Even in the darkest of nights, the moon gives off a faint glow. The same is true of the world of American corrections, even in Florida’s private prison paradise. This light — and the hope it brings — comes from an unlikely source with an unusual mission: Open Books’ Prison Book Project.
The Prison Book Project is a volunteer books-to-prisoners operation. Founded in the year 2000, when it used to be based in the now-closed Subterranean Books (Pensacola, Florida), it is presently hosted at Pensacola’s Open Books.
Open Books, a nonprofit bookstore located at 1040 N. Guillemard Street in Pensacola, Florida is open every day from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Its volunteer operators can be found selling discounted books to the public. But on Wednesdays, the real transformational magic is breathed into being.
Every Wednesday, the Prison Book Project volunteers take over and get to work. They open stacks of mail from prisoners across the state of Florida. While they can handle around 40 requests each week (due to mailing expenses), they receive around 70 requests a week from prisoners seeking books, an outlet to something greater than their prison cells. The backlog of hundreds of requests shows the value, importance, and respect prisoners have for this project.
As each request comes in, the prisoner’s contact information and specific book request are cataloged. If the specific book is available, it is sent free of charge to the incarcerated requester. If not, a book by the same author, on the same topic, or in the same genre is sent free of charge. If none are available, the book request is filed and filled once the book or an acceptable alternative becomes available. Due to stocking and mailing considerations, prisoners are allowed to receive up to 3 books at any one time. These are mailed in a plain legal envelope. One request is permitted every 6 months to allow for equal access to services.
The Prison Book Project — and Open Books, for that matter — is supported by donations of books and funds, and sales of discounted books to members of the general public. As such, any librarians, booksellers, publishers, or others with either funds or used books to spare should be encouraged to make donations. With no salary paid to any of the volunteers — and books sent to prisoners sent with no expectation of payment — one hundred percent of any and all donations will go directly to the cause.
In the world of prison, much of what people are is taken away. Their individuality is stripped from them; sometimes their sanity, too. Those of us who have served serious time in prison understand how damaging this experience and existence can be. We understand that without positive outside influences, the mind reverts and embraces the negative and hateful culture found in America’s prisons. Projects like the Prison Book Project of Open Books help to inject such a positive influence. The books give prisoners something healthy to focus their time and attention on. They help prisoners to retain their very humanity while expanding their knowledge base, which will help them when it comes time to reintegrate back into society and search for employment once again.
For more information about Open Books’ and their Prison Book Project, visit