68% of inmates return to prison within three years of being released, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many of these repeat offenders lack the education or skills needed to effectively integrate back into society.
One local bookstore is determined to help inmates reach their fullest potential while behind bars; which is why this week the spotlight is on Open Books Bookstore and Prison Book Project.
This non-profit organization, located at 1040 N. Guillemard Street in Pensacola, is completely operated by volunteers. Open 7 days a week from 12-5 p.m., the bookstore also houses the Prison Book Project; sending thousands of donated books to prisoners within the Florida prison system.
“I think something that a lot of people don’t really think of when they think of … prisoners in general, is that almost all of them are going back to the community,” explained Open Books co-founder Scott Satterwhite.
The goal of the Prison Book Project is to provide inmates with personal and educational reading material in order to “help reduce the likelihood of their returning to the prison system.” Volunteers help run the store front and assist with a weekly book packing night from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday evenings.
Johnny Ardis, a volunteer with the project for nearly 8 years, said that in addition to the volunteers, “We have a loyal following in the community that donates books and money to us to keep the organization functioning.”
Although Open Books receives a variety of new and used books, the selection can be limited; however, requests are filled no matter what. Occasionally, special orders can be made to accommodate specific requests- when funds are available.
Interestingly, journals and blank compositions books are most popular among female inmates while Fantasy books seem to be preferred by male prisoners. In general, dictionaries, crossword puzzles, books on religion, philosophy, and foreign languages are among the most requested items.
What type of books are they lacking in donation? “Books on learning trades and work skills are our biggest need right now,” said Ardis. G.E.D. (General Education Development) books are also regularly requested but hard to come by.
Prison libraries could be a great resource for inmates to learn a trade or skill while incarcerated but many of these services are severely underfunded. Compounding the issue, prison policy prohibits friends or family members from sending books to inmates; prisoners may only receive books from a bookstore.
Originally, the Prison Book Project was based out of Subterranean Books, formerly downtown, until 2007 when they closed down. In October of that same year, Open Books Bookstore was established on the west side of Pensacola to continue the project. Open Books relocated in 2012 to the current Long Hollow Neighborhood storefront, next door to First City Arts Center.
Each prison has its own policy on book limitations; usually around 4 books per inmate. At this time, Open Books can typically accommodate 2-3 books per order. Additionally, a National Prisoner Resource List that includes information about other book organizations can be provided upon request. This way prisoners can utilize various groups and receive books more frequently.
As a non-profit organization, obstacles are to be expected. “Our biggest challenge is having enough funds to mail all of the books that are requested,” Ardis said. Open Books website boasts processing “150 inmate book requests at a cost of $525 for mailing” each month. While operating cost total “around $800 – $1,000/month.”
One thing that Satterwhite would like people to know is that all of the proceeds raised by the Open Books Bookstore help to fund the Prison Books Project. “So if you bought a $5 book, that would essentially send a package of books to somebody in prison. If anybody’s ever interested in donating to the bookstore they can simply buy a book.”
On average, 40 out of 75 requests are filled each week. “Currently, we are about 3 months behind on filling requests,” shared Ardis. Events like the annual Pack-A-Thon help to fill additional orders but time isn’t the only factor.
Expanding by leaps and bounds, during 2015 the Prison Book Project mailed 3,325 packages totaling over $7,500.00 in shipping cost; as compared to 2012’s 960 packages.
Ardis explains that the measure of success for the Prison Book Project is in their “ability to keep up with book requests.” Volunteers are hoping that the recently received 501(c)(3) status that now allows the organization to receive federal tax exemptions will also yield larger donations. Ardis explains, “If we are able to get funding from foundations and corporations, it will help us greatly. If all goes as planned, we will be able to raise enough funds to mail all book requests in a timely manner.”
Included in every package is an information sheet about Open Books and the Prison Book Project to be shared with others. Ardis believes that the project has had the most success by word of mouth; prisoners pass along the information and thus the Project is expanded.
Blending “old school” books with “new school” technology, Open Books now accepts Bitcoin donation; very cutting edge! The storefront also showcases prison and local artistry with a portion of the proceeds donated to bookstore operations.
“There aren’t a lot of brick and mortar bookstores around, especially used book stores, so to have one is important; and that it offers many other things besides just the books,” said Satterwhite. “We offer a space for people to get together and meet, to have film showings-which we do, community events, all sorts of different things like that. So, we’re a lot more than just a bookstore.”
Satterwhite added, “One thing that we offer is friendly communication, without any judgement at all. We don’t ask what people did. We don’t care what people did to get into prison. They ask for something and we give it to them. It’s as simple as that.”
In return, prisoners send letters of thanks to the volunteers; they also send gifts of artwork or inspirational quotes such as, “No matter what happens, always be thankful.” Open Books Bookstore & Prison Book Project expects to continue sending books to prisoners as long as they have support from volunteers and donations to do so.
“I can’t think of too many other activist projects where it’s really that simple. You know, someone just asks you for a book, and if you got it, you give it to them, and that’s it."
Would you like to get involved? Consider volunteering for the weekly Prison Book Project book packing night, Wednesday’s 6:00– 8:00 p.m. at the Open Books Bookstore location. Why not donate? One time or monthly donations are accepted and appreciated. Also, check the Facebook page and website for the next Pack-A-Thon where prison arts and crafts will also be on sale; TBD by the end of June.
1040 N. Guillemard St., Pensacola, FL 32501
As always, if you know of a person or organization that has made an impact on the community, please nominate them for this series. Email me at Rebecca.Carlson1984@gmail.com with the subject line “Spotlight: Philanthropy” and a brief description of the person and their achievements.