When I pitched the idea of rebranding articles on this site, Book 'Em was one of the first subjects that came to mind. We want to use this section of the site not only to provide perspectives on the trendiest goings-on in literature but to also help put the spotlight on those in the community doing their best to help others. One of the only tenets of ours that I believe truly affects how we run this company is that each every moment is a new opportunity for growth and that you shouldn't judge one for past mistakes, that we should use our time together not only to learn from each other but to accept that we are all always growing. I can't think of a better example of this than Book 'Em. Not only am I proud to feature them on our page but I feel unworthy to write about them.
In short, Book 'Em is a program which provides books for prisoners. (Think about the feels you got when Andy Dufresne improved the library in Shawshank Redemption.) They are based in Pittsburgh and meet from 4-6 at the Thomas Merton Center the first two (sometimes three) Sundays of the month. It was founded by Etta Cetera nearly twenty years ago(!) in 2000. They are sponsored by The Big Idea bookstore. If this all sounds like I'm just paraphrasing their About Me section, that's because I am, so do yourself a favor and check out the real deal for yourselves: http://bookempa.org/what-we-do It's an all volunteer organization, so do the world a favor and help out.
I reached out to Book 'Em by email and Jodi was kind enough to answer a few questions (and a misunderstanding) I had about their organization.
Update: There was a misunderstanding on my part about a book ban that threatened the way Book 'Em Operates that lead into this part of our exchange. This was an error on my behalf.
How has not being able to donate books to individual prisoners changed your program?
There might be a bit of confusion here. We are still able to donate books to individual prisoners! They still write to us directly with their requests and we hand select books that would be appropriate for them. The only difference is that before being delivered directly the the prisoner, they are sent to the "Security Processing Center" in Bellefonte PA where they are inspected for drugs and contraband. After that, they go to the specific prison and prisoner they are intended for. This has made it take an extra week or two for people to get their packages after we send them, and there were some hiccups at first with people getting the correct books and their book invoices, but that is improving. One of the main differences with the new policies is that we can't send loose paper with the books. This includes our resources guides, materials we might print out from the website, answers to questions about our organization, etc. Instead any non-bound paper we want to send except for the invoices, get sent to Smart Communications, a private company in Florida, where the paper is scanned, sent to the prisoner, reprinted and given to the prisoners. This makes the packing sessions a bit more complicated as it's an extra step for our volunteers to learn and additional postage to mail to FL, but we've gotten used to it.
One big change is that because all of the packages go to one location in central PA now (except for packages sent to Federal Correctional Institutions), we are able to send them together in a large box, vs individually mail them. This has been saving us quite a bit of money of postage as well as time in processing the packages to be mailed.
How has the experience been in Pittsburgh? How has The Big Idea helped as a sponsor?
Pittsburgh is such a fantastic city to be based in! People in the city are extremely supportive. We receive probably hundreds of donated books each week not only from community members who know about our programs but book stores and publishers. We have incredible volunteers and so many groups and organizations get involved with sponsored packing sessions. Plus, we wouldn't be able to operate without the financial support of our monthly donors to cover the cost of our shipping. People in the city also rallied around us when the book ban happened in 2018 helping with call ins to the governor and DOC officials and general push back. Plus we have a great relationship with many of the other criminal justice advocacy groups in the city and are proud to be a part of that network.
The Big Idea Book Store has hosted their Brunch Fundraiser for us, does a great job of promoting events and issues around prison education issues like highlighting books censored by prisons during banned book week. Plus people at the book store can purchase dictionaries and other books for our program while they check out! Additionally, the PA DOC and many other prisons across the country restrict who can send books to prisons to "original sources." Because we are a part of the Big Idea Book Store, we are able to qualify as an original source and send books directly. If we weren't a part of The Big Idea we wouldn't be able to operate! We are also sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, a fantastic organization that is a long standing Peace and Social Justice Advocacy nonprofit in Pittsburgh.