Defense Against Tedium

Sitting in a cozy chair with one's favorite novel is a simple luxury that many of us take for granted.

However, that's not the case for inmates in the Arizona prison system.

"Ex-prisoners will often tell stories about how tedious prison is, with occasional bouts of angst and terror mixed in," said Mike Lovelace, a volunteer for Read Between the Bars, Arizona's books-to-prisoners collective. "They say everyday is a trial, and reading for six hours a day is an escape. It engages the mind in a way that nothing else in prison can."

Based in a crowded garage crammed full of donated novels, textbooks and dictionaries, Read Between the Bars has a mission: to provide Arizona inmates with a literary diversion.

Since March 2007, the volunteers at Read Between the Bars have mailed more than 4,000 books to almost 1,500 Arizona prisoners.

The group distributes 8-by-11-inch cards to inmates explaining the purpose of their organization. Every month, Read Between the Bars sends between 50 to 70 book packages to inmates who request the material via mail.

"The letters we get are just absolutely great-spirited. They request books from romance to sci-fi. They are just eager to read," said volunteer Mike Hume.

The letters from prisoners have had a very humanizing effect on many of the volunteers at Read Between the Bars.

"Reading and hearing the letters made me realize that prisoners are people as well," said Hume. "That is a really sad thing to say, but it really changed my view on the prison complex."

Volunteer Elsbeth Pollack said she wrote letters to prisoners after she co-founded a similar collective in Wisconsin.

"These are people, stuck inside walls and behind bars, who are not thought about and often ignored," she said. "To give people that semblance of contact and relationship is really important. To hear that they like a book or want a book is really wonderful."

Volunteer TC Tolbert said his perspective changed after witnessing and hearing about inequalities in the justice system.

"When I was first coming to Tucson, I was really involved in the queer community ... and I would see a lot of our youth feeling like they were being targeted in some way by police officers," he said.

Furthermore, Tolbert said that when he examined the rates of incarceration, he learned there is a disproportionately high number of people of color in the Arizona prison system.

"A white person only has a 6 percent chance of going to prison, but an African-American person has a 30 percent chance," said Tolbert. "I don't think it is because white people aren't committing crimes."

Tolbert said he had done things that would warrant jail time—but no one was looking to catch him.

"I need to use the privileges that I have—a white, college educated, middle-class person—to offer whatever resources I can to this cause," he said.

Tolbert said providing prisoners with books of their choosing is an empowering dynamic.

"An inmate will write to me and say, 'This is what I am looking for.' It isn't like I am choosing what they should read; this is what they want to read," he said. "If I can't find it, hopefully someone donated Bookmans credit, and we can go get it."

While most prisons have a library for inmates, they are generally underfunded and under-stocked, said Tolbert.

"This is a way to get more current materials that are specific to inmates' interests," he said.

Of all the books the volunteers of Read Between the Bars send in, the dictionary is the No. 1 requested book, said volunteer Brooke Willock.

"As soon as we get donations of dictionaries, they are out by the next book-packing party," she said. "History books (and) books on Aztec and Mayan culture are also pretty popular."

This weekend, Read Between the Bars will be holding a fundraiser featuring local performing artists Silver Thread Trio, Vicki Brown, Maggie Golston and Leila Lopez to collect books and cash donations.

"Book donations are easy for us to come by. The thing that is always difficult for us is money for postage," said Willock. "It takes between $3 and $4 to send about three books to a prisoner. We literally have packages waiting to be sent. We have letters coming in."

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