Sparkt Bridges

Donated Books Provide A Lifeline To Prisoners

Prison can be a lonely place. One nonprofit is making a difference, allowing inmates to occupy their minds and learn.

This story is part of a bi-weekly series that celebrates people who are reaching across a divide to "build bridges" with others. The Sparkt Bridges series is made possible with the support of UPMC.

"When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded." - The Honorable Justice Thurgood Marshall

In the basement of a community center in Pittsburgh, PA, there is a small, but rather impressive library which has a unique set of patrons: prisoners. Volunteers meet there two Sundays each month to organize its ever-growing inventory of donated books and to pack and ship selections to various prisons across Pennsylvania for free.

Preparing a book for shipping.Ryan Bergman/Sparkt

The effort is called Book 'Em, a nonprofit books-to-prisoners program that aims to improve the quality of life for people who are incarcerated by providing free access to educational materials, books, and resources. Prisoners who might not otherwise be able to receive books from friends or family on the outside are able to request books from Book 'Em donors.

Here's an inside look at what Book 'Em does, and how one prisoner says it's making a difference:

Since it was founded in 2000, Book 'Em has provided books to about 35,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania.

"I think we really learned what the significance of our program... is back in the fall of 2018, when the PA Department of Corrections actually banned our organization from being able to send in books," said Jodi Lincoln, one of the organizers at Book 'Em. They kept at it, because "we heard time and time again from people... that access to books for free was such a huge lifeline for them," said Jodi.

Jodi marshals her group of volunteers.Ryan Bergman/Sparkt

Luckily, public pressure helped overturn the ban on used books in the prisons, allowing Book 'Em to continue their support for prisoners like K. Kabasha Griffin-El, an inmate at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Somerset.

Kabasha used his access to books to start a prisoner peer support group called the Unit Literacy Group (ULG). The ULG describes itself as an "educational based recovery environment" that helps promote recovery and rehabilitation through literacy. It was made possible, in part, through support and educational materials sent by Book 'Em.

Volunteers keep the donated books organized and ready for shipping.Ryan Bergman/Sparkt

"It was just beautiful to see that everyone was excited about these books, this literature, that they were receiving from Book 'Em and it made them want to participate more," said Kabasha. "There was just something awesome about having someone like Jodi out there with Book 'Em and the rest of her crew there that believed in us."

"They were supporting us and that just means so much, not only to myself, but all of the men that participated in our group so far."

Kabasha's voice broke as he expressed his gratitude to the volunteers. "I just love volunteers," he said, "I just think that volunteers are the most beautiful people on the planet and when they're out there advocating for us, it just... it just... I'm at a loss for words, it makes me emotional."

"It's beautiful."

The Sparkt Bridges Project is produced with the generous support of UPMC. Life Changing Medicine.

How can you start something good?

Book 'Em keeps a running list of books that they currently need. If you're looking to get rid of some of your old books, check and see if they can be donated!

If you would like to help, but don't have any books to contribute, check out their Amazon wishlist and help by purchasing some titles they're looking for.

Of course, shipping materials and postage are expensive, so any monetary donation helps too!

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