Unrepentant outlaws

Bookstore window with sign reading "Any amount of books"I’m upset and terrified by Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. It gives me a feeling of intense powerlessness.

I’m scared that the national and global economies will crash.

I’m scared that there will be widespread rioting and my family and friends will get hurt or killed.

I’m scared that he’ll launch World War III.

I’m just scared.

As I figure out the best ways for me to fight back—or at least to remain constructive in a bad time—volunteering has been making me feel better.

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It usually annoys me when someone writes about their volunteer work, because it comes across as kinda self-righteous. So, as a disclaimer, I don’t volunteer because I’m some saint or perfect person.

Often, when I’ve signed up for a volunteer project, and the hour arrives, I don’t really want to go. I’d rather stay home and read, or watch Vikings on Amazon Prime. Those activities are delightful and don’t inconvenience me in the slightest.

But then I do go, and 100% of the time, I feel better afterwards. (Hey, sort of like working out.)

It’s not that, because I’m a good person, I volunteer. It’s the opposite, really. I volunteer because doing so makes me a better person. And I get way more out of it than I give.

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I volunteer through Boston Cares. They’re a good organization for commitment-phobes. They publish a calendar, and you can sign up for as many or as few activities as you want.

Lately, I’ve been giving some time to the Prison Book Program. My friend Nance, who volunteers a LOT more than I do, got me into it.

We read letters sent by prisoners from across the country, in which they ask for books. Many prisons don’t have a library, or only a small one. Family members and friends aren’t allowed to send books to prisoners. Book donations have to come from a bookstore.

So we are the Lucy Parsons Bookstore—an all-donations “bookstore,” run by volunteers, named for an anarchist labor activist, in the basement of a Unitarian church in Quincy, MA, where John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and JQA’s wife Louisa lie buried in the next room.

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Reading helps prisoners feel human. It helps them feel less trapped, and keeps them calm in a stressful environment. It helps them educate themselves.

It also reduces recidivism. When prisoners get some education during their time incarcerated, they’re less likely to reoffend and wind up back in prison after their release.

Stats on prisoner education are a bit elusive, maybe because this is such a forgotten population. The ones I can find that look legit are from 2003, and say that 68% of prisoners don’t have a high school diploma.

I’ve heard anecdotally that the average education level for prisoners is around Grade 8. The most frequently requested book is a dictionary.

Their letters put my life in perspective. One man wrote that he’s been living in a one-man cell for 6+ years, and reading books is the only thing that keeps him going. Another requested books about “unrepentant outlaws.” One sent me a list of his 25 favorite authors. Another said he’s due to be paroled in 2045. He’s 52 years old.

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I don’t know these men and women’s crimes. Some of them have done awful, destructive, violent things. Others shouldn’t be locked up at all. Many are in there for making bad choices, having bad luck, and/or having poor impulse control. Or, they got swept up in the round-up of men of color for drug offenses, real or imagined.

Why they’re in there doesn’t matter. Books are a civil right. And they’re comforting. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I’ve felt the power of a book to soothe me when I’m upset, or to sharpen how I think about a topic.

After boxing my last set of books for the night, I walk out of the church and look up at the moon. I realize how lucky I am to walk down the street freely, to go where I want. To go to the library the next day and read whatever I desire.

When a prisoner asks for a particular type of book, and I’m able to find it and send it to them, it feels like a small concrete victory.

We need more of those these days.

Photo by Glen Scott via Creative Commons license.

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