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Prison Book Project Receives Grant From Florida Humanities Council

Open Books Facebook page

For 18 years, Open Books has provided free books to Florida prisoners.

The volunteer-run organization operates on a small budget of donated books and sales from the Open Books bookstore. Earlier this week, the nonprofit received a $5,000 grant from the Florida Humanities Council to purchase books.

“A portion of the grant will be used to purchase books that we’re normally low on,” said Johnny Ardis, volunteer coordinator for Open Books. “We get a lot of requests for books on African American studies, urban fiction, dictionaries and thesauruses."

It’s the largest financial donation ever for the organization which runs on a budget of about $1,500 a month. 

The nonprofit generally manages to "scrape by" with their own fundraising efforts, Ardis said. Every three to four months, they'll hold a sidewalk $1 or less book sale that generates around $1,000 in sales.

As a small nonprofit, there is no designated grant writer. It was a volunteer, Dawn Corrigan, who offered to look for grants to apply to. Ardis said they rely on the talents of the community to keep going.

"It gives people a sense of ownership of the organization," he said.

Scott Satterwhite, founder of Open Books Prison Book Project and board president said he's very grateful for the grant funding. 

"I think it speaks highly of the volunteers who put this grant together, as well as the support our program has in the community and through out the state."

Open Books and the Prison Book Project started when a local group of activists formed to work on issues such as poverty, homelessness and the prison industrial complex. They started a lending library, which eventually became the start of the Prison Book Project. The first books they sent was a pair of Louis L’Amour westerns to a prisoner on death row.

Nearly two decades later, Open Books processes about 300 inmate requests a month. Ardis said volunteers do their best to send requested books, or "something close," with the book donations they receive.

Earlier this week, a bipartisan Congress passed a criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act. In short, the bill expands job training and other programs aimed to reduce recidivism rates of federal prisoners,  expands early-release programs and modifies sentencing laws such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. 

Credit Open Books Facebook page
Inmates send requests for specific books such as dictionaries and African American studies. The nonprofit was recently awarded a $5,000 grant to purchase specific requests.

And in November, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 which restores voting rights for felons.

Ardis said he's encouraged by these efforts. Open Books volunteers have pushed for some of these changes for years.

"I think politicians are realizing the criminal justice system has gotten too out of hand...it's too many lives," he said. "Fortunately, it's a bipartisan issue."

In the mean time, Open Books stays vigilant to its mission to sending 10,000 books each year to inmates each year, thanks to the help of the community and the Florida Humanities Council grant. 

"We get letters all the time from prisoners who order books telling us how much it means to them," Ardis said. "It's a way to survive incarceration and it gives them hope, and teaches them different skills. It helps society as a whole."

Visit the Open Books Bookstore at 1040 N. Guillemard St. You can donate at openbookspcola.org

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.