Book 'Em shipments brighten Pennsylvania inmates' lives

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For the hundreds of books that volunteers package each month in the basement of the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, thank-you letters trickle in from inmates in Pennsylvania's prisons.

Suzanne Powell, a retired teacher who co-coordinates the volunteer project called Book 'Em at the Merton Center, said she treasures every letter but they are not her motivation for spending six hours a week managing the collection of donated books and the database of prisoners who receive them.

"I love to read and can't imagine sitting in a cell without a book," she said. "Some prisoners write to say they have read every book in the prison library and that some have pages missing."

The basement of the Merton Center has been the home of Book 'Em for a decade. The all-volunteer group's original goal was to supply books to inmates nationwide, but that was scaled back about five years ago to solely serve Pennsylvania's inmates.

Prisoners are low on society's sympathy list, but their letters reveal the shared humanity of all people who love to read.

"After seven years in prison, I hardly ever get mail anymore," wrote Jim from a prison that was not identified in his letter. "Then, out of the blue, I not only get mail but it's books! In addition to that, they are great books. Well, there's just no words to thank you. Keep up the compassionate and noble work."

Susan McNaughton, press secretary for the state Department of Corrections, said the state has an incoming mail policy that applies to all prisons in its system. Publications have to be mailed to a specific inmate, either from a direct source such as Amazon or under the auspices of a bookstore.

Book 'Em works under the auspices of the Big Idea Bookstore in Bloomfield.

Like many recipients of castoffs, Book 'Em gets hundreds of unusable donations -- books that are too heavy, too old or unacceptable to the institutions, such as hardbacks; books with spiral bindings; books that are underlined or written in; books with maps, clips or staples; and pornography.

"Each package is checked and X-rayed," Ms. McNaughton said, adding that every prison has a library that participates in the same interlibrary loan agreements as libraries on the outside. She refuted some inmate claims that prison libraries are insufficient.

But Book 'Em obviously fills a need.

Jesse from SCI Frackville wrote to Book 'Em asking for "anything that relates to offshore drilling. I would like to pursue that career upon my release. Another interest would be outdoor/wildlife. But ultimately, whatever you could send would be greatly appreciated. Thank you a lot for being out there. Your like a lifeline."

Shelves line Book 'Em's basement walls with books grouped by category. They include fiction, literature, poetry, politics, history, business, film, romance, Westerns, mystery, crime, science, reference and a small section on wildlife. Some books are lifers there.

Ms. Powell pulled "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" from a fiction shelf.

"We don't get requests for this kind of book," she said. "We do occasionally get a request for something on wildlife. We recently have gotten a few requests for books on dog training. Mythology and ancient history are quite popular. We get a lot of requests for crime novels, but we don't send books about rape or murder.

"One inmate wrote, 'I'm in solitary: Please send me the thickest books you have,' so I sent 'The Brothers Karamazov' and 'War and Peace.' "

Book 'Em limits each inmate request to three every three months. It survives on individual donations and spends $400 to $500 a month for postage. It accepts donations of books but asks that donors honor the wish list, at the top of which are dictionaries and other reference books. The website -- -- provides more information on donating books and money and volunteering.

An inmate named Tim at SCI Houtzdale wrote: "I received the book you sent to me today, 'Jefferson and the Rights of Man.' I wanted to write and thank you! My original letter to you asked about books having to do with the Constitution, politics, ideologies, etc. Honestly, I thought I'd get nothing. So imagine my surprise today getting this wonderful, informative and educational book."

"I would like to request a book package," wrote Bennett from SCI Huntingdon. "The types of books I enjoy are classic American poetry (the likes of Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau), classic American literature (i.e., Steinbeck, Sinclair, Twain), psychology and American history."

Ms. Powell read the recent letter, smiled and said, "This one made my day."

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.


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