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'A Sense Of Humanity': Prison Book Project Celebrates 20 Years

Jennie McKeon/WUWF

On a recent Sunday morning inside Open Books, a handful of volunteers are busy moving throughout the store trying to fulfill requests for books to send to Florida prisoners.

One volunteer looks through a shelf stacked with old westerns — a popular request — while another grabs a title from the science fiction section. The stacks are taken to a room in the back where two more volunteers are diligently packing up the books to be sent to prisoners around the state.

Twice a week, volunteers meet at the small book store and home of the Prison Book Project to send a small semblance of humanity. Florida has the third-largest prison population in the United States, with approximately 95,000 inmates incarcerated, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Volunteer Terry Covington said the project stays so busy meeting requests of Florida prisoners they can’t expand to other states.

“Normally we send about 60 packs of two to three books twice a week, that’s 120 total a week, and more than 6,000 a year,” said Covington. “The only days we take off are Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

In the new year, the Open Books Prison Book Project will celebrate its 20th anniversary (the actual book store didn’t come along until 2012). Founder Scott Satterwhite said the project got its start from a prison book collective in Ashville, N.C. The first two books he sent out were a couple of paperback westerns to an inmate on death row.

“It’s pretty amazing to think of the early days when this started in my bedroom,” said Satterwhite.

Books sent to prisoners must be directly from a bookstore, according to Department of Corrections procedures. In its early days, the Prison Book Project existed in the back of Subterranean Books. When the store closed in 2007, Open Books opened its own used book store in Pensacola’s west side. In 2012, it reopened at its current location on Guillemard Street.

Volunteers and donations are the lifeblood of the store and the Prison Book Project. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF
Volunteers search through donated paperbacks with letters in hand to match books with requests.

Covington said there are about 10 active volunteers, oftentimes different clubs or organizations will donate their time packing or sorting books. Donations of gently used paperback books are always in great demand.

“There is a great need for everything, we need books to send — paperbacks for prisoners are a priority,” said Covington. “We also need plain, old-fashioned money for postage. We’re kind of just surviving on dribbles of money to pay the power bill and shipping.”

Common book requests include fiction paperbacks — “something to help you escape,” said Covington. There are also requests for educational materials, which can be hard to come by.

“We get requests for thrillers, of course, (James) Patterson, (John) Grisham and all those guys,” added Covington. “The next thing is westerns, sci-fi/fantasy, next down the line is religious or self-help material. We get requests for science books — we can’t send chemistry books. And almost always dictionaries.” 

The books come from donations to the store; some volunteers scour thrift stores and yard sales for inexpensive books. Sometimes, families stop by asking the store to send books to their incarcerated loved ones.

Like the prisoners they serve, the volunteers come from different walks of life. Kieu Tran is a college student who started volunteering a month ago. On this particular Sunday, she’s searching through the paperbacks with a request form in hand.

“As someone who likes books, it’s really enriching to be able to share that joy and to look for books for people,” she said. “Reading about (the prisoners’) experiences and their own struggles in their letters really opened up my eyes to be more accepting.”

Sara Ratliff, a middle-school librarian, felt compelled to volunteer 2 1/2 years ago. She said it helps motivate her when she struggles to get kids excited about reading. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF
Sara Ratliff, a middle school librarian, says she volunteers because she wants prisoners to know they're not forgotten.

“When we’re sending these packages out, I want prisoners to know they’re not forgotten,” she said as she wraps a package with tape. “We see their value.”

The Prison Book Project is sometimes an inmate’s only contact with the outside world. Some letters go on for pages, and even though volunteers don’t have the time to answer lengthy responses, they do read them.

“Some inmates are at prisons far away from their homes,” said Satterwhite. “People don’t really write letters anymore, so you kind of lose contact with just about anybody. You just want to give that basic human connection. No one should be judged on their worst day.”

Covington said she never looks up a prisoner’s charges so that she can remain unbiased, and it’s a common practice among other volunteers.

“This is a human being who is asking for something we can give them and their situation, however they got there, whatever they did, they’re still people who want to connect with the world,” she said. “They are going to get out one day and we want them to know there is a sense of humanity out there for them.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF
Volunteers search through organized stacks of paperbacks to match requests. Popular books are westerns and thrillers.

After 20 years, The Prison Book Project has grown exponentially in its reach, and with the opening of its own book store. Yet, it’s still very much the grassroots organization it started out to be with that first small request.

“There were times when we were close to failing apart just from the sheer volume of requests,” said Satterwhite. “It’s taken a lot of hope and passion. Thanks to volunteers we’ve kept the project going. We’re still coasting along.”

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