Breaking down barriers with books

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In the withering basement of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, MA, built in 1828, volunteers from the surrounding area joined together to package and send books to prisoners across the country to help them survive jail. Every Thursday night from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., people of all ages read letters from offenders within the prison system. These letters ask for books from the program and volunteers select and send books off to those who desired them.

Although Prison Book Program is national, Sheikh Nasher, the campus partnership scholar within the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) organizes the Suffolk chapter where students volunteer alongside many other groups. The partnership between Suffolk and the program has been running since before 2011.

“I help coordinate partnerships between Suffolk and non-profit programs and volunteer work,” said Nasher. “Within CCE, there are four divisions: Weekly Projects, Alternative Spring Break (ASB), Service Learning and Jumpstart.”

Nasher went on to say that ASB is the most popular program within the department. As a campus partnership scholar, he helps train project leaders for the weekly services such as Prison Book Program.

Currently open to students every week, Nasher said that he has had to cancel the program many times for little interest or no involvement. He said the volunteer work is beginning to fill up again due to service requirements and this time of year, the weather is nicer.

He organizes three different weekly projects: Monday night Supper Club, Christopher Haven on Tuesday, Wednesday night Supper Club and Prison Book Program.

Prison Book Program mails books to people in prison to support their educational, vocational and personal development and to help them avoid returning to prison after their release,” the national program’s website states. “We also aim to provide a quality volunteer experience that introduces citizens to issues surrounding the American prison system and the role of education in reforming it.”

On Thursday night, more than 20 volunteers arrived at the church to support the initiative. Trained leaders allowed the individuals to choose their station of choice: reading and selection, invoice or packaging.

Every book within the small library, tucked in the corner of the basement, was generously donated. The books were arranged by fiction and nonfiction, then separated into genres. Although time consuming, a leader said that the reading/selection process was the most sought after by the younger volunteers.

A stack of letters sat on a bookshelf, names scrawled in cursive along the top left corner; each held a request from an inmate, graciously requesting book(s). Occasionally the stack dwindled until more envelopes were added and volunteers would continuously take one after another, attempting to fill each request.

“Try to match a book to their request, but if you cannot find one, choose a book you would read,” volunteers were told by long-standing volunteers that helped guide first-timers.

Mostly asking for specific books or genres, some letters contained an occasional back story to the identity behind the hand-written note. From the horrors of the prison system, to the amount of time they spent in solitary confinement, the letters held the hard truth.

One letter detailed the amount of negativity that is held in the atmosphere in prison. It went on to say that prisoners are told by the guards to end their lives and the only way for a prisoner to escape reality is to read.

Besides providing prisoners with reading material, the program is looking to increase their chances of survival once they are let out. If asked for, the group includes a “National Prisoner Resource List” or Legal Resources so that they have a chance after prison.

Following the reading and selection process, the books were sent over to invoice where volunteers reviewed restrictions that varied from one prison to another and corrected any mistakes. Short comments were allowed on invoices to send a uplifting message to a prisoner, sometimes to let them know they are more than a just a number.

“Adam, I know that you can make it through this tough time and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I am rooting for you,” wrote a volunteer on one of the invoices. Other volunteers scribbled similar messages.

Volunteers were told that addressing prisoners by their first name holds significance to them since they are treated like a number. After that comment, silence ensued.
Every week, a maximum of six students are able to R.S.V.P. to the Prison Book Program through SUConnect.