The written word. It has the muscle to enlarge minds.
To touch hearts.
To educate and inspire.
That’s why Mike Oliver collects and organizes books each week that will be sent to Florida prisoners.
But there’s another reason.
Five years ago, Oliver, 72, was incarcerated and knows how good it felt to receive reading material while serving time. “When you’re in prison, you’re shut away and feel like nobody knows about you,” he told Pensacola News Journal.
Oliver receives hundreds of handwritten letters that bear a name and address of a Florida prison or jail—the largest prison system in the country—requesting novels, biographies, dictionaries, and reference books on subjects like math and engineering. Each week, Oliver organizes these letters that come to Open Books Bookstore, a nonprofit that launched the Prison Book Project in 2000, as a means to provide free books to inmates in the state.
Because inmates cannot receive books directly from family or friends, all reading materials must be sent from a bookstore or publishing company. In 2015, the store shipped 3,300 packages to prisoners. Donations and bookstore sales fund shipping costs to the inmates.
Every summer, the store organizes a “Pack-A-Thon,” their largest packing and shipping event of the year. Members of the community are invited to help package books to ship a large portion of the requests at once. This year’s “Pack-A-Thon” is July 24.
But each week on Wednesday evenings, about 20 faithful volunteers respond to inmate letters by packing up books and shipping them to 53 statewide facilities. Weekly, the store ships 60 to 70 packages, each containing two books.
Oliver added, “[With] this program, they know at least one person thinks about them and what they’re doing; and it makes them feel better about the world they will reenter.”
Expressions of thanks and gratitude are often included in inmate letters, helping to reinforce the meaning and value behind the Prison Book Project.
Open Books Bookstore also hosts cultural events, including lectures, art exhibitions, plays, musicals, films, poetry and book readings, and neighborhood festivals. Many of the events are free, and all activities are open to the public—something formerly incarcerated men and women might look forward to.
Johnny Ardis, one of the volunteers, adds, “Almost all of the requests talk about how much it really means to them to be getting these books. It really does make you feel like you’re doing a good thing.”