The Underground Group Supplying Pittsburgh’s Prisoners with Books
On Book 'Em, an Activist Books-to-Inmates Donation Program
To find Book ‘Em, you need to go underground. Descending the backless, wooden stairs inside the Thomas Merton Center—a shabby building that, from the outside, appears deserted—reveals a narrow basement library with hand-written signs adhered to wooden shelves: Science & Math; Popular Fiction; Sci-Fi/Horror; Legal.
A smell rises up: damp concrete and old books. The front of the room is occupied by a desk and two tables, one surrounded by metal folding chairs, the other supporting an old fashioned postal scale and plastic boxes full of brown paper parcels.
Book ‘Em is Pittsburgh’s books-to-prisoners donation program. On the first and second Sunday of each month, volunteers gather to fill requests from incarcerated people across the state. I’ve been volunteering on and off since 2017, but even after months of absence, it’s easy to jump in: pluck a hand-written letter from a box next to the scale, skim the contents, then join the other volunteers who rove the shelves, searching.
Volunteers who have already made their selections sit in the metal chairs, folding bundles of books into sliced open paper bags, securing them with packing tape, and addressing the packages in Sharpie. Each must be labeled in precisely the same way:
Department of Corrections ID Number
State Correctional Institution
At these packing sessions, you’re almost certain to encounter Jodi Lincoln. Jodi is Book ‘Em’s development co-chair and human encyclopedia. Have a question? She’s the one to ask. She’s the small, brown-haired woman in the green t-shirt and leather dog collar, the one always in motion. First she’s behind the desk, cutting up paper bags. Then she’s hauling a heavy box of packages up the steep wooden stairs. Then she’s sorting donations, deciding which to add to the library and which to purge.
She holds up a paperback and reads aloud from the back cover: “Will Martha find the strength to stay or succumb to the temptation of DIVORCE!” She wrinkles her nose, says to no one in particular, “So she shouldn’t leave her abusive husband because God doesn’t believe in divorce?” Snorting, she drops the book back into the box.
“Toss that one!”
Jodi is right: no one requests anti-divorce propaganda. They want dictionaries, comics, books on WWII, landscaping, and religion. They want Sudoku and crosswords, books on drawing, vampires, and rock ‘n’ roll. They want guides to investing and self help. They want a line to the outside world, other voices speaking to them across miles and years, telling stories and offering up knowledge. They want, basically, what we all want from books: to learn, to escape, to feel less alone.
And they want to justify themselves, explain or apologize, show they’re working to improve. One man requests books on Christianity. I want to get better in my faith, he writes. In the Religion section, I locate a copy of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and a grass-green book of devotions, small enough to hold in the palm of a hand.
I carry the books to the front of the room and weigh them (you cannot send more than three pounds of books, because the shipping becomes too expensive). Next, I take a brown paper bag from the pile and find a place around the packing table, fill out an invoice cataloging the titles I’m including and their collective price ($0), and wrap the books in the paper bag, trimming it down first. This process never fails to remind me of wrapping presents with my mother, the colored paper, ribbons I curled by pressing them between the sharp edge of a scissor and the pad of my thumb. Except instead of adorning the packages with ribbons, I sharpie the man’s ID number and SCI onto the front, drop the package in a box, and take a new letter.
The first books-to-prisoners programs were founded in the early 1970s and mostly follow the same structural model: run largely by volunteers, many of them are sponsored by a local bookstore, which serves as a drop-off center for donations and letters. The volunteers organize book donations, raise funds for shipping and materials, pack and mail the books, and advocate for incarcerated people’s rights. While some programs, like Book ‘Em, serve local areas, others ship books across the country.
Because they originated primarily in Anarchist communities, these book donation programs tend to operate cooperatively, but independently. There is no command center, just people trying to do right. As of 2016, there were 36 books donation programs across the U.S. and Canada.According to its website, Book ‘Em has sent books and other reading materials to roughly 33,000 people in prison since its founding in 2000.
Book ‘Em was founded in 2000 by Pittsburgh-based performance artist and prison rights activist etta cetera. In 2002, The Big Idea, a bookstore run by an anarchist collective, became Book ‘Em’s bookstore partner. In 2003, the organization moved its library to the Thomas Merton Center, which became its nonprofit sponsor. The Thomas Merton Center is a community organizing hub which, in its own words, “engages people of diverse philosophies and faiths who find common ground in the nonviolent struggle to bring about a more peaceful and just world.”
According to its website, Book ‘Em has sent books and other reading materials to roughly 33,000 people in prison since its founding.
Jodi can’t remember exactly when she started coming to Book ‘Em—maybe late in the winter of 2015, or early 2016. She’d just graduated from college and was working for an East Pittsburgh property management company, showing dank basement apartments to other recent college grads, and she wanted to get back into activism. She’d caught the bug in high school, when she started going to Iraq War protests organized by a classmate. But she didn’t have a cause yet. She chose Book ‘Em because the Sunday afternoon meetings didn’t conflict with her work schedule, which often had her showing apartments until 7 p.m. on weeknights.
She also chose it out of a sense of obligation: she was a sweet-looking girl from an upper-class neighborhood. She’d done plenty of illegal things, but no one suspects a nice white girl. She knew that she’d been lucky, and that her luck was wholly contingent on a system that persecuted people of color and the poor. She wanted to pay reparations with her time.
So one snowy evening, she walked the 10 blocks between her apartment and the Thomas Merton Center. Descending into the basement library, she thought, It’s dingy, but at least there are books. Growing up, she’d spent her summers on Fire Island, where her mother founded and ran a small community library. Jodi had been her assistant librarian. She’d attended a public creative and performing arts high school, where she’d majored in creative writing. Books and language were in her blood.
Almost immediately, she fell in love with the process. It was like a puzzle: moving from section to section, trying to find the perfect book. If someone requested fantasy, she could pick out a novel she loved. It felt personal, like she was building connections with men and women she’d never met. Working long hours, she rarely had time to read anymore. But, for two hours a week, she got to be around books. Touching and smelling them, sending them out into the world.
And the letters got to her. She was moved by people who wrote three pages explaining the ways they were bettering themselves, thanking the volunteers. The letters from those in solitary affected her most. She always tried to find ways to sneak extra books into their packages.
When you rely entirely on donations, it’s often hard to get incarcerated people the reading materials they want, and two years after Jodi started at Book ‘Em, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections made it even harder. Prison authorities were insisting that K2, a synthetic cannabinoid, was being smuggled into prisons via letters and books. The DOC banned book donations and started forwarding personal mail to a secure processing center in Florida, where it was examined and scanned, the copies forwarded to recipients and the originals discarded. Legal mail could still come directly to prisons, but it would be opened by a prison employee and photocopied. Pennsylvania was the only state in the U.S. to implement such a restrictive legal mail system.
As if to justify this policy, a PDF on the PA DOC website provides examples of letters by incarcerated people instructing visitors to smuggle drugs into prisons. You want to keep [the drugs] in your pussy until you see me, one reads, you can get it out wash it off and I’ll have you spit it into the chocolate milk we’ll be sharing. The PDF also includes photos of a Bible with suboxone concealed under its cover and letters apparently soaked in liquid K2. Make sure the liquid don’t touch your hands, another letter instructs, if it do make sure you wash your hands before you smoke ‘cause it’s like wet [a cigarette soaked in PCP].
These examples seem designed to titillate and shock. Drugs transferred from a vagina to a carton of chocolate milk?The letters got to Jodi. She was moved by people who wrote three pages explaining the ways they were bettering themselves, thanking the volunteers. The letters from those in solitary affected her most. She always tried to find ways to sneak extra books into their packages.
There is some basis for the PA DOC’s concerns about drugs: according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which reported extensively on the book ban, there was apparently a high enough incidence of K2 use among people in prison in to prompt a statewide lockdown. And the possibility of paper soaked in K2 seems to be the factor that sparked the mail restrictions. Guards, the PA DOC claimed, were touching contaminated mail, absorbing K2 through their skin, and experiencing dizziness, nausea, and racing hearts.
But the Inquirer also reported that these symptoms may have been the result of what toxicology experts called “mass psychogenic illness.” The guards, experts argue, knew about the possibility of K2 soaked letters, which made them experience symptoms when sorting mail. Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told the Inquirer that absorbing K2 through the skin is “implausible.” He added that synthetic cannabinoids “don’t cause the effects these folks are having, and certainly not by the route that they’re being exposed… The symptoms are much more consistent with anxiety.”
Still, the PA DOC insisted that the book ban was necessary, adding that inmates would still be able to access books through prison libraries, special kiosks, and tablets. But prison libraries are poorly stocked, and the Inquirer reported that kiosks were neither practical nor user-friendly, failing to recognize search terms and unable to accommodate requests for magazines.
The tablets were also a problem: stocked with insufficient catalogues, they were priced at nearly $150. Added to the cost of a tablet, e-books clock in between $2.99 and $24.99. According to data aggregated by the Prison Policy Initiative, people incarcerated in Pennsylvania make between 19 cents and $1 per hour, before deductions for things like court assessed fines. It can take as long as two weeks to save up for a $10 phone card. At that rate, an e-reader would eat up seven and a half months’ wages, assuming the prisoner spent money on nothing else.
The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and several other legal organizations joined forces to file suit against the PA DOC over the handling of legal mail, arguing that it violated attorney client privilege. Meanwhile, Book ‘Em and the Philadelphia organization Books Through Bars leapt into a fight against the book ban.
They organized letter writing campaigns and phone blasts to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and to the DOC secretary’s desk, started petitions, and got the word out on social media. They reached out to local politicians with liberal reputations, including John Fetterman, the semi-famous former mayor of Braddock and Pennsylvania’s current Lieutenant Governor. They wrote letters to the local media outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh: City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The public got behind their campaign, but politicians, aware that Governor Wolf supported the ban, seemed reluctant to take a stance. And while the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the ban extensive coverage, Pittsburgh media seemed largely uninterested.
It was a hectic time, and organizing left Jodi little room to actually feel anything. When she did have time to process her emotions, she felt frustration and despair. The DOC wanted more control, and people in prison were being punished because guards were experiencing a fantasy illness. Book ‘Em could shut down. The DOC seemed to be getting away with a policy that was both cruel and unconstitutional, and no one with power seemed willing to do anything about it. But these same facts also gave her strength: she had legality and morality on her side. Book ‘Em and Books Through Bars just had to generate enough public outrage to pressure the DOC into reversing its stance.
Then Book ‘Em received the email that would change everything: the Washington Post reached out, asking if someone would be willing to write an op-ed about the ban. Jodi, with her background in English and creative writing, volunteered.
Jodi’s op-ed spread like wildfire across the internet, occupying the front page of Reddit for nearly two days and flooding social media. Jodi had expected her friends and family to share her writing, but she started seeing friends of friends, even strangers, sharing the article too. I know this girl! some distant acquaintance would proclaim, posting the link. Finally, finally, people seemed to not only know about the book ban, but care. Public pressure was mounting.
On Nov.1, 2018, the DOC reversed the book policy. Two months later The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project et al. v. Wetzel went to trial in Harrisburg, and on Feb. 22, they reached a settlement: as of April 6, legal mail is no longer being copied and stored, giving people in prison access to private communications with their lawyers once again.
The news of these reversals left Jodi feeling triumphant. Activism is so often met with silence or resistance. To see actual changes being made was incredible.
But victory came with an asterisk: inmates’ personal mail is still funneled through the processing center in Florida, and the system for donating books has become more complex. Instead of going directly to the SCIs, books are shipped to a secure processing center in Bellefonte, PA, where they are checked by security professionals before being forwarded to the people who requested them.
Book ‘Em sent surveys to people in prison asking how the new system was functioning. They heard back that books were taking longer to arrive and that people were not receiving the invoices listing the titles they’d ordered. This concerned the Book ‘Em volunteers, who were worried about accountability. What if the packages got swapped and someone got the wrong books? How would people know they’d gotten their full orders? Couldn’t someone from the processing center theoretically throw away a book he or she didn’t approve of?
While Jodi has reservations, she also knows systems take time to streamline. And incarcerated people are getting books again. No matter what, this is something to celebrate.
In a windowless basement, it’s easy to lose track of time. I check my phone and see that the packing session is almost over. But I have time for a few more letters. Two in a row request books on Wicca—each from a different SCI. Is there a remote coven forming? I hope so; I like the idea spells arcing across the state.Access to something as basic and necessary as books is so tenuous, so easily ripped away. But the public remains overwhelmingly opposed to book bans.
Both Wiccans also request LGBTQ erotica. Book ‘Em doesn’t carry erotica, but I send them short story anthologies by queer authors, hoping this will do, that no one in the processing center deems even this kind of representation inappropriate and sneaks it into a garbage can.
One of the Wiccans also wants ghost stories set in Pennsylvania. I despair of finding anything so specific but check Horror anyway. And there it is: The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle with Evil in Their Home. It feels like magic, like the coven is already exerting its will on the world.
The last letter I pull is from a woman, the first I’ve seen since I started volunteering. She has beautiful handwriting, the letters big and bubbly, trailing into elaborate serifs. She wants fantasy, horror, urban fiction, and—yes—Wicca. I stack her order with all the vampires, ghosts, and embattled teens I can find, wrap them in brown paper, send them trundling toward some remote and locked facility.
It’s impossible to avoid the twinning of sadness and hope in this process. Access to something as basic and necessary as books is so tenuous, so easily ripped away. But the public remains aware of—and overwhelmingly opposed to—book bans. In April, a similar policy in Washington state lasted only a few weeks before being overturned by the state’s governor. So maybe, one day, these bans will be a thing of the past. Maybe, one day, so will prisons.