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Merciful Sentences

In prison, books are the gift that keeps on giving

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Every day in prison sucks, but none sucks more than Christmas Day. From Thanksgiving on, it's impossible to listen to the radio or watch the tube without hearing Christmas carols telling you this is "the most wonderful time of the year." Everybody is celebrating with friends and family and seemingly having a great time. Except you, the prisoner.

In an effort to spread a little holiday cheer to friends on the inside, I send them books.

Books are highly valued in prison. Short of a file in a fruitcake, sending a book is the best thing that I can do for them, because every book contains hours of escape. As a result, everybody reads in the joint. Everybody reads a lot. Even guys who didn't learn how to read until they got to prison.

Anyone unwrapping a book at mail call is invariably surrounded by guys queuing up to read it next.

I was relating all of this to the proprietor of the neighborhood bookstore when he told me about Book 'Em, an organization devoted to sending books to prisoners.

Since 2000, Book 'Em has sent nearly 20,000 books to more than 4,000 prisoners. You might think Christmas would be the organization's busiest season, but every season is busy for Book 'Em, according Carrie Plant, one of the volunteers in this all-volunteer organization hosted by the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield.

The group receives more than 500 requests from convicts every month, and it mails more than 300 packages, each containing about three books, to inmates in every state in the union except Oregon and Texas (because of their state prison regulations). Book 'Em also publishes and mails resource guides containing information on subjects such as legal assistance, post-release support and health issues -- as well as contact information for pen pals willing to correspond with convicts in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Of course, Christmas is that special time of year, and Plant told me about a request from a prisoner who asked for books because it would be "the only Christmas present he would be getting."

Book 'Em volunteers meet for book-packing sessions at the Merton Center every Sunday between 3 and 8, though the sessions often last hours longer. What inspires volunteers to give up so much of their time? Plant couldn't speak for everyone, but her background was in education. With state and federal prison systems cutting funding for rehabilitation and education, she hopes that her efforts help fill the gap by offering an avenue for prisoners to self-education.

Indeed, many of the books Book 'Em ships are related to GED and college courses -- along with how-to books for the building trades.

Can Book 'Em really make a difference? Carrie said that she believed that, at a minimum, the program was opening a "tiny window to learning." But if all it accomplished was making someone's day go by faster in segregation or leading someone to develop a new interest, she added, the effort is worth it.

Convicts apparently agree. I know a lot of convicts, and it is the nature of many of them to take advantage of practically any situation. Most of them also have the capacity to be grateful to people whom they believe are truly on their side ... and teachers and librarians were always the safest people in any joint I've been through.

Book 'Em receives dozens of sincere letters of thanks every week, many of which can be read on its Web site, www.thomasmertoncenter.org/bookem.htm. Carrie told me that the Center has compiled a portfolio of the artwork prisoners have sent to show their appreciation.

The Book 'Em volunteers deserve more than just the thanks of convicts. By helping prisoners to better themselves during the time they spend in prison, they are helping everyone.

Book 'Em is currently holding a dictionary drive. Anyone interested in donating dictionaries -- or any other book -- or helping out with a contribution of time or money should contact them at 412-802-8575.

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