something to dream about
There are currently around 170,000 people incarcerated in the Texas penal system. Texas has the largest number of inmates per capita than any other U.S. state, and in fact, it's higher than any country in the world, according to the Inside Books Project.
Inside Books was started in 1998 as a way to get free books and educational materials to people in prison in the state of Texas. Prisoners write to IBP and request books, either general or specific, and a team of volunteers fulfills those requests. Most of this is done on volunteer nights, when a group of volunteers fill the book requests from the IBP library, located at Space 12 in East Austin. The library is mainly made up of books donated from all over the city.
"We're an all-volunteer non-profit organization and get about 800 letters each month from Texas prisoners requesting books," says John Nation, a dedicated volunteer and supporter. "We have open volunteer nights twice per week where we answer letters and package up books to be mailed out."
John adds that from the reports that IBP receives, there are a lot of people in Texas prisons who are having trouble getting quality books and educational materials. "We send out books as a way to encourage education, to help inmates pass the time, and to encourage human dignity and respect." GED study material, language learning books and fiction, especially espionage and thrillers, are frequent requests.
"A lot of people are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses and nonviolent property crimes," John says. "With over 170,000 people locked up in Texas alone, the high rate of incarceration is something that affects a lot of Texas families, and it can be very difficult for both prisoners and their loved ones. The vast majority of prisoners will be getting out of prison at some point, and it's important to think about what kind of skills and education they'll take with them. Prison can be a dehumanizing experience, and we try to do our part, however small, to promote dignity."
Hannah and Elizabeth are two eighth-graders who recently volunteered at IBP, as part of a term paper on poverty. The students were involved through the Sending Solidarity project, which focuses on youth age 14-25 who are in the correctional system.
As Hannah and Elizabeth point out, many of these young people are spending only a short amount of time in the system, and still need to keep up with their education. In fact, this could have a huge impact on whether or not they are able to turn things around in a positive manner when they are released, and not end up incarcerated again.
Hannah was surprised at some of the things that kids her age had gone to jail for. "Things you wouldn't suspect," she said. "You can be in jail for running away or skipping school. It's sad that you can be in jail for skipping school because you can't really learn in jail." An astute point about the contradiction in punishing such a "crime" with something that is likely to only exacerbate the original problem.
Elizabeth says their goal in volunteering was to "help give them encouragement and help them to believe in themselves, and know that someone out here is thinking about them." She went on to say that the experience had a big effect on her. "Knowing that there are children here who just want some hope, and stuff that we take for granted like books and Christmas cards, are things that can actually make their day."
For some prisoners, IBP is the only place they have to write letters to. Prison libraries are often small and limited at best (and often nonexistent) and resources for people who are incarcerated in Texas are not very plentiful.
Jeni Lyon can relate to the problem; her father is in prison. "To have that kind of a population, that is segregated from the rest of the world and is slowly but surely losing touch with what it's like to be a member of society, books are a way to keep the mind alive." Jeni's father calls it "mind rot."
"He has to guard against his mind literally rotting from lack of use," she says. Books keep his mind alive and functioning, and gives him things to dream about. "The power of hope and of dreams is a powerful thing, and I think books are a way to keep that alive."