In the Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., a group of volunteers locates books on shelves and places them in large brown boxes. On one of the walls, a bulletin board displays countless drawings. One is a comic about a superhero whose weapon is education and knowledge, and whose villain is ignorance.
The comic was sent by a prisoner who refers to himself as King David, King of the Comics. This artwork is sent by the incarcerated, showing their gratitude to the volunteers in D.C. Books to Prisons who send them books.
D.C. Books to Prisons, a volunteer-based organization, was founded in 1999 and provides books to inmates around the country who have limited access to their prisons’ restrictive libraries, or no access at all.
The organization receives letters from inmates nationwide, asking for specific books. The volunteers then match the requests with donations, from churches and Books for America, and ship them out.
The most requested book from prisoners is a dictionary. Almanacs and fact books are also popular. The organization gets many requests for sci-fi, suspense, mystery and GED material.
“We find that since the prisoners have a lot of time on their hands, they use these books to expand their vocabulary and study for their GEDs while in prison,” said Christine Matthews, a Foundry United Methodist Church liaison and volunteer for D.C. Books to Prisons.
Prisoners have also requested drawing and writing books, everything from composing a resume to essay writing. When they get out of jail they will be able to use skills they learned from those books, according to Matthews.
“D.C. Books to Prisons is fundamentally an education program to reduce recidivism among inmates,” said Katya Handler, a volunteer and sophomore at the George Washington University.
Volunteers also communicate with inmates through a pen pal program. “I have a pen pal from prison named Elton,” Handler said. “He killed his wife in a drunk driving accident. He didn’t finish high school, however, he is extremely involved in politics and very aware. We have lengthy and intense political discussions.”
Many prisoners have also used skills they obtained from donated books to write thank you notes to the organization. In the Foundry United Methodist Church, there is a large folder stacked with them.
One letter from Stephen from Pampa, Texas reads: “The books you have sent to so many prisoners have changed countless lives and helped them to escape the world of prison. Additionally, many books have become educational and I have personally seen many prisoners become interested in what they have read and often ask questions concerning the topic. In a way, this restores my faith in humanity, forgiveness and compassion.”
In addition to letters, some prisoners write poems and send them to D.C. Books to Prisons.
“In my opinion, this project is so valuable not so much for the literature we send them but because it’s a personal contact,” Matthews said. “It’s letting them know somebody out there cares.”
Students can volunteer for D.C. Books to Prisons on Wednesday evenings between 5:30 and 9 p.m. at the Foundry United Methodist Church.