It looks like a private library. Shelves of used books line the length of a wall and a U-shaped area across the room. A giant colorful planet is painted on another wall. People are quiet and studious.
This is not your average library, however, and people aren’t here to study. This is where a non-profit called Inside Books Project is located, and the volunteers in the room are writing letters and sending books to Texas prisoners.
Inside Books Project sends approximately 50,000 books a year to prisoners across our state, connecting them to literature, reference texts, comics, art, history and more.
Getting to Know Inside Book Project
Inside Books Project was established in Austin in 1998 by a man named Dave Martinez. I use “established” loosely. According to one staff member, the early group met anywhere they could, including a chicken shed for some time. Later, they met at the Rhizome Collective, which has since been shut down. And now, around 10 people help manage IBP at Space 12, which the nonprofit shares with a church.
The primary goal is to match prisoners in Texas with books they would like to read, which requires thoughtfulness and consideration. According to one volunteer staff member who has worked with Inside Books Project for almost six years, postage is the largest expense. It takes about $3.00 to ship each package, and this cost quickly adds up. Even with the funding help of Treasure City Thrift, an East 7th Street establishment, money is always an issue and donations are greatly appreciated.
Join an Eclectic Group of Volunteers
The volunteers I met made up a diverse group. One chatty individual attends church in the same building and stayed late to volunteer. A silver-haired newcomer with hands in his pockets asked eager questions during orientation. And another young man was there to complete community service; he heard about the project as most people do–through word of mouth. A few women who had clearly been there before skipped orientation and went straight to answering letters with a practiced, quiet air about them.
The books are 95% donated, although certain needed texts are bought (think dictionary). All are organized by genre. Pulp fiction books are the most popular, so volunteers are told to only include one in each package if requested. In the health section, there’s a running list of subjects inmates have requested books about. But mostly, if there isn’t a match, volunteers do what they can to find the next best thing before writing a note about it in their return letter.
Staff member Aems told me this simple letter, listing enclosed books with a short message, is the only contact some prisoners get from the outside world. Any positive words or comments about the books being sent can mean a lot.
Although matching books with letters is the most interesting part of Inside Books Project, other tasks are important. During my visit, volunteers were told that the organization was way behind on taping. All books are packaged in big folded-over mailing envelopes. Tape reinforcement is needed so envelopes don’t break in the mail, and an army of tape guns awaited efficient volunteer hands.
Keep Prisoners Present
Inside Books Project answers about 1,000 letters per month, but they receive many more. When I was there, I answered a letter that had been written three months prior. The staff works tirelessly and for free, and all are passionate.
Aems said the organization helps prisoners stay present. It makes them real. You hear from them, and you respond to them. Aems encourages you–the reader, the volunteer–to think about these people more in your everyday life and consider restorative justice. The other veteran of the project who I spoke with said books give people hope and education, and it would be inhumane not to provide that.
- Located at 3121 East 12th Street.
- Volunteer hours: Sunday and Thursday from 7-11 PM. Orientation for newcomers starts at 7 PM.
@erinmayyyy wants to know:
Have you ever volunteered with Inside Books Project?