Jorge Renaud sits at a table in a dim room lit by string lights. He is surrounded by shelves of books, hunched over a box with dozens of letters from people in jail. He pulls out a letter from the stack and reads it aloud:
Inside Books Project,
Hey guys, thank you so much for the books. I enjoyed all three of them, and I am sharing them with other guys now. If you have any more suspense, thrillers I could read, that would be great. Sorry I can’t afford to send stamps again — hopefully next time I can.
Thank you again for everything,
Inside Books Project, a nonprofit on East 12th Street, receives about 1,800 letters a month from inmates requesting books. Volunteers read the requests then send a reply, along with a customized package of books. It has sent close to half a million free books to prisoners in Texas since it was founded in 1998 and is on track to send more than 75,000 books this year.
Renaud has a master's degree from UT Austin School of Social Work. But he knows personally just how difficult it can be to access books in jail: He served three different sentences that kept him behind bars for a total of 27 years.
Renaud says library access was up to the discretion of the guards assigned to the education building. They'd allow prisoners to go to the library once a week or so for about 15 minutes to an hour. "[Sometimes] they decide, 'OK, I already let four people from this wing go, that’s all I’m going to let go tonight,'" he says. "It’s all hit [or] miss.”
Library privileges are often one of the first rights revoked because of inmate misbehavior, says Aems Emswiler, a long-time Inside Books volunteer. Emswiler says that prisoners who are placed in solitary confinement or administrative segregation (known as “ad seg”) can also go a long time without books.
“We can send people books even if they’re on lockdown or in ad seg, which is pretty important," Emswiler says. "Some people are on ad seg or in solitary for years and years and years, (which is another issue in and of itself), but sending books to those people is also just incredibly important for mental health and well-being."
Inmates get to keep books sent from Inside Books Project. The hope is they'll pass them along to other prisoners when they're done.
The letters volunteers send are also important, Emswiler says, especially for inmates in solitary confinement or serving life sentences.
“There’s a woman I’ve been corresponding with for about four years now, and she’s a trans woman held in a maximum-security men’s unit. She’s been in solitary for quite a while,” Emswiler says. “She wrote the other day, and she was like, 'Inside Books is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I have no one else talking to me, no other outreach.'”
Inside Books says inmates will often send art, poems and essays that they've created. Volunteers save the submissions for art shows and for use on the organization's website and social media. The art is also included in a newsletter that's sent a few times a year to volunteers, donors and prisoners.
An inmate in Huntsville sent an essay to Inside Books that was included in the spring 2017 newsletter and signed only, "Thank you, Huntsville, Texas."
The prisoner said it can be difficult for inmates to access the library regularly and that some jails give out only a limited number of library passes.
When they call library what they do is bring five library passes to each section, which causes a stampede and sometimes even fights because everyone wants to go to check out a book but only five people are allowed. They don’t have any type of process to equally give everyone a chance to go. This especially goes for all the older people who are unable to rush to the door with thirty youngsters because of the risk of getting hurt.
Letter-writing can also have a huge effect on the volunteers, who get a glimpse into a prisoner’s world and are better able to understand what life is like for the more than 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States.
Inside Books takes the issue of mass incarceration and makes it personal: It connects people.
“There’s a letter I got that I was reading through recently that said, ‘I’m 17. I’m in jail. I have a life sentence. I’ve been in jail for three years, and I’m really looking for a crocheting book. My grandmother used to crochet,’” says Lucy Kreutz, who has volunteered at Inside Books for eight years. “So just seeing that juxtaposition of [someone in prison who wants a book about crocheting], it kind of really makes it real for you. You’re like, this is still a person who’s remembering his grandmother crocheting.”
“This is [a letter] from Daniel,” says Kreutz. “‘You girls and guys are outstanding, and I pray that you all continue to believe in expanding the minds of us easily forgotten because sometimes it’s books that begin new journeys or just plain, old relief from the journey we chose to walk.’”
Inside Books accepts book donations at drop-off sites at its office on East 12th Street, Bouldin Creek Cafe and Monkeywrench Books. Some of the most frequently requested types of books are dictionaries, African-American studies, pulp fiction, books in Spanish, and prep books for tests like the GRE or GED.