What once was a small living room has transformed into a makeshift library of hand-me-downs, shelves overflowing with well-worn softback and paperback books. Genres of all types have found a temporary home among these walls, taken care of until eventually finding their way into the hands of a prisoner.
Started in 2011 by Sarah Fick and Caty Crabb, Athens Books to Prisoners, 30 1st St., is a volunteer-run organization that sends free books to prisoners in Ohio upon request. The only one of its kind in Southeast Ohio, the organization believes books have the power to decrease the isolation and dehumanization of the prison system and stimulate individual growth and positive change.
“I personally know I have a lot of privilege in this world and I think about those less fortunate than me who have fewer resources ... the person that needs the most help, has the least freedom, least access,” Fick said. “I can’t think of anybody but immigrants in detention centers and people in prison that need the most help.”
Several years before organizing Athens Books to Prisoners, Fick volunteered at a smaller program in Bloomington, Indiana while Crabb volunteered at a program in Asheville, North Carolina. When the two met, they knew they wanted to start up a similar program in Athens.
“When we first started out we worked with Cleveland Books to Prisoners and Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project in Bloomington, taking their overflow,” Fick said. “We didn’t want to immediately start advertising our service because we didn’t know if we were gonna be sustainable.”
According to a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation, educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40%. Many of the requests Athens Books to Prisoners receives are from prisoners with little or no access to adequate prison libraries or educational programs. For Fick, she couldn’t be happier to contribute to the resilience of these communities and their battle against the prison industrial complex.
“We get a lot of great thank you letters from folks appreciating that they were able to get something along the lines of what they were looking for,” Fick said. “Some people send us money or stamps, so just knowing how hard stuff like that is to get while you’re in prison and then people wishing to send it to us anyway even though we’d never ask that, it’s huge.”
Twice a month, Athens Books to Prisoners holds book packing nights where volunteers read numerous letters from incarcerated persons in prisons across Ohio, including the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Dayton Correctional Institute, Franklin Medical Center and more.
“We used to be able to serve most of the prisoners in Ohio, but the restrictions are always changing,” Fick said. “It’s hard to keep up with them. We went through a spell where we kept getting packages returned to us from a bunch of different prisons, but that seems to have loosened a bit.”
Each package sent out contains one to five books that serve 80 to 100 prisoners. From the time Fick mails out the package to when the books are in prisoners’ hands takes about a month. From time to time, Fick and other volunteers run into prisoners who request specific titles or authors, which can be a hard request to fill with donated materials only. Nevertheless, the volunteers do their best to get as close to the prisoner’s request as possible.
“We get a lot of requests for mystery type, suspense type authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz,” Fick said. “And then we get a lot of requests for learning various trades or learning new languages. Those are some of the most heavily requested things, but it’s actually a really wide variety of stuff.”
Thanks to various businesses like ReUse Industries, Friends of the Athens Public Library Used Book Sale and a paperback exchange in Lancaster, as well as individual donations, Athens Books to Prisoners holds over 5,000 books. The only expense the organization has to cover is postage.
“Most of the money for postage comes from the Kroger Community Rewards,” Fick said. “Kroger shoppers can choose an organization that a percentage of their profits from specific purchases goes to an organization of their choice. Getting people to choose us for that program really helps out a lot.”
While the mission of Athens Books to Prisoners resonates with many members of the community and more, Fick doesn’t see the organization expanding; instead she wants to focus on keeping it afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We keep in touch with various programs around the country so it’s not like the kind of thing we would start another chapter in another city, because there’s a lot of programs doing it independently of each other,” Fick said. “It would be great if we had more resources, then we could do a book packing session every week rather than twice a month. But it seems right now during the pandemic that keeping it at the same level is the goal.”
During the academic school year, Athens Books to Prisoners welcomes groups of Ohio University students looking for service hours to help pack books. Volunteers pack every first and third Wednesday of the month. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Fick has relied on friends and Athens residents to come and help out when they can. One of those friends is Matt Glass, a frequent volunteer who has attended over 70 book packing nights.
“I do it because it is the most satisfying, direct action project available, in that I’m able to read a client’s book request and mail the fulfilled order that same evening,” Glass said.
Glass is happy to help out Fick and support her mentality of bettering society. As a volunteer, Glass has been surprised to see some of the amazing artwork prisoners send to Athens Books to Prisoners.
“I have an envelope on my fridge I brought home with me that has a very well-rendered mosquito drawn on it with a pencil,” Glass said.
Parallel with Fick’s view, Olivia Lang, a freshman studying psychology, sees the advantages of sending books to prisoners. Lang participated in a book packing event back in February before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“It was good to be able to participate in something that was encouraging the expansion of knowledge, even in prison,” Lang said. “Hopefully by us doing something so small, we can make a bigger impact in someone’s life and possibly reduce the chance of recidivism.”