Letting Go, Setting Free

  • By Mark I. Pinsky
  • August 24, 2018

The Asheville Prison Books program


For those of us of a certain age who have been regular or occasional reviewers or just book lovers, the sight of groaning shelves throughout the house can be troubling. It's time to thin them out so they won’t be a burden to our kids — or get wasted at postmortem yard sales.

The brutal truth is that these hundreds of hardcovers and paperbacks, as much as they are beloved, need a new home, a place where they will be read by many — and equally loved. And a destination where the donation will not undermine royalties of fellow authors. As we know, there aren’t many such places left, except for U.S. jails and prisons.

In the United States, there are more than 2 million inmates serving time in federal, state, and county facilities. Until about a decade ago, most correction facilities required that any books sent to inmates come directly from publishers or from Amazon for security reasons. However, that policy began to change, with individual facilities now given the authority to make their own decisions.

With the new policy, organizations like Asheville Prison Books (APB) have sprung up around the country. Like many, APB is a shoestring operation, working out of Asheville’s Downtown Books & News and staffed entirely by volunteers.

The nonprofit collective was established in 1999. Partners include the local Christian group “Faith 4 Justice” and the Asheville Jewish Community Center. I chose to give my surplus books to APB because I like that part of the country, and one of my nonfiction books takes place in the area. So, on a late August trip to western North Carolina, I paid them a visit.

On a Saturday morning, I meet one of the volunteers, Julie Schneyer, 32, a startup-tech worker by day, online graduate student by night, and a member of a local anarchist cooperative.

Their jerry-built office at the back is a cramped, donated 8’x10’ area — two walls are bookshelves — in the back of Broadway Books, which sells used books and a wide array of periodicals. 

Schneyer calls the Broadway staff “allies of the program.” The program, she explains, was a response to the dearth of prison-funded literacy and rehabilitation programs, which coincided with the explosion in prison populations and the simultaneous reduction of resources.

“I think it’s great that people want to support Asheville Prison Books by donating books and money and time,” she says, largely “because they have severe criticism of mass incarceration.”

APB covers North and South Carolina prisons and gets 50-100 inmate requests a month. In the Southeast, Florida has its own affiliate in Pensacola, but Georgia does not. There are several national organizations for inmates from other states, where APB sends requests from outside the Carolinas.

Donated paperbacks less than two inches thick, most used, but some new, are sent in parcels of two to inmates who request specific titles, authors, or subject areas. A rotating cast of six to eight volunteers fills the requests in the tiny office and sends them to a larger venue where more volunteers wrap them for shipment, sessions often held in conjunction with parties.

When the inmates finish the books, they pass them along to friends — since most institutions limit the number that can be kept in cells — so the majority ultimately end up in prison libraries.

The most popular titles are dictionaries (especially Spanish-English), vocational, and educational, including language instruction and study guides for the GED. Also, books by and for people of color.

“Anything people find empowering,” Schneyer says with a smile, “and, of course, James Patterson.”

There are restricted categories, Schneyer says: porn and “incitement” — the latter of which can be interpreted broadly, if not capriciously, by prison authorities.

One once-banned title was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The ban was ended when the ACLU filed suit against the North Carolina prison system. When the title was allowed, “Faith 4 Justice” purchased a number of new copies at cost from another bookstore around the corner from Broadway Books, Malaprop’s.

What the project needs most now, Schneyer says, is money to cover postage.

*****

Back home in Orlando, the actual process of culling and shipping the books off to Asheville is turning out to be more emotional for me than I had imagined, entailing a certain amount of psychologically letting go. A lot of the discards are easy: review copies — many never reviewed — from my newspaper’s book editor, who was attuned to my various interests: religion, China, Jews, animation.

Others were simply off-limits for discarding, including gifts from my children, those written by friends and inscribed, as well as those in specialty areas connected with books I have written myself: “The Simpsons,” Disney, evangelicals, true crime, Appalachia. The toughest books to face were those acquired with every intention of reading, but which, for some reason, were never cracked. How many could be read in the time I have left?

As with many of life’s challenges and crises, I approach the culling in stages. So, I’m starting to fill boxes with books for people who will love them, too.

[Editor’s note: Learn more about Asheville Prison Books on its website or Facebook page, or via email at ashevilleprisonbooks@gmail.com.]

Orlando-based freelance writer Mark I. Pinsky is the author of five nonfiction books, most recently Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan (John Blair).

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