“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
- Malcom X
Athens Books to Prisoners believes in compassion for everyone, even those who may sit behind bars.
Sarah Fick, one of the organization’s founders, drew from her past experience to develop the individual approach taken by the group. She and a friend, Miguel Evanoski, decided that instead of sending randomly selected books to stock prison libraries, they would give free books directly to incarcerated people based on the written requests they send.
The group received space rent-free from a friend and runs as an all-volunteer organization, so its only expense is postage to mail the books. Even fundraising for this small expense can be difficult, Fick explained, because of the misconceptions many people have about the prison system.
“Some people just think that all the prisoners are in there for a reason and they deserve to be denied everything,” Fick said. “So, why give money to let them have books?”
Athens Books to Prisoners works to combat these misconceptions and help others develop more compassion for incarcerated people. The organization practices “direct prisoner outreach,” helping not only prisoners, but also those who work with the organization to keep an open mind and a kind heart. The program and process might seem simple, but the effect for the recipients can be enormous.
“We find that a lot of prisoners don’t have adequate access to the libraries and also, when you’re in prison you barely own your own body,” Fick explained. “So, having something that is your personal property really does have a big psychological effect on the person.”
Athens Books to Prisoners receives many letters from prisoners all over Ohio. They do their best to fulfill the prisoners’ requests with any books that seem fitting from their library. Community members can donate all types of books, but the organization is always looking for Spanish-English dictionaries or lightly used, current textbooks. Many prisoners ask for books such as these in order to better communicate with other inmates, to work toward earning their GED, to learn how to open a small business when they leave the facility, or purely for entertainment purposes.
As of now, the group only serves prisons in the state of Ohio. Eventually, Fick hopes they can branch out to West Virginia or Kentucky and eventually the nation. They currently receive letters from all over the country and must reply with a postcard explaining why they cannot assist them and directing them to other resources.
Volunteers, many of them students, come from all over Athens to help pack books. Recently, some members of the girl’s soccer team volunteered at a book packing night. Celeste Fushimi-Karns explained that the soccer team enjoys the time spent volunteering.
“As a team, we show our support to the community because they support us,” Fushimi-Karns said.
Evanoski hopes to expand Athens Books to Prisoners’ involvement with Ohio University.
“We already have a lot of students who are involved, but we don’t have any real assistance from the university,” he said. “If we had more of a campus connection then that would definitely help out.”
The work the organization does to help prisoners does not go unnoticed. Many prisoners send ‘thank you’ letters to the organization.
“We take it really seriously when someone who has very little money spends the resources they have to buy paper and to buy a stamp and then to send us a letter,” Fick said. “That means a lot to us.”
In the end, the project is about more than simply delivering books to prisoners. It is a movement in its own right to create a better and more understanding society. Evanoski and Fick agree that it helps keep them conscious of the larger issues behind the U.S. prison system. It also serves as an act of solidarity with “people of color and poor communities that are disproportionately affected by the prison industrial complex,” Fick added.
In a culture with misconceptions about incarceration, people often think the worst of those behind bars. Evanoski tries to make people understand: “Just have compassion. If you have any kind of compassion then you can see that you’re just helping out your fellow man.”