A few months ago, Clinton Festa contacted me with an opportunity to help promote an unusual ministry he’s begun. Sentences is a ministry through which books are donated to prisons and detention centers around the United States. Clinton joins me today to give us more information about what he’s doing and why it’s important. Thanks, Clinton!
What led you to form this sort of ministry/charity? How long has Sentences been in operation?
In October 2013 I started learning more about prison life from some documentaries. I was surprised to learn that some inmates in Indiana are given the privilege of having pet cats and video games. Most of the times though, in most prisons, reading is the main form of recreation on a short list of options. I started looking into donating books to prison libraries, and was surprised how difficult it was to find that information. Some third party sites have the info online, but too often it’s just a prison address. You can’t donate that way; your donation may be rejected if not submitted properly. Often it needs a donation form, so you have to do your research. After a lot of effort, I finally found the info to donate to one prison. I asked what they needed, went to Goodwill, then the post office. If you ask for the media rate from the USPS, the whole thing can cost around $20. And it was fun. Picking up books from a thrift store, packaging them, and sending them off. But it still costs $20, and I can’t do that for every prison in the country. I thought I could start a more efficient way of getting it done. So, in January I started a Facebook site and a Goodreads group with the concept that I would research, then post the specific needs and donation instructions for various prisons. I’ve got a handful posted right now, but really I need to start getting more followers for the site to work. The idea is that if someone ‘likes’ the Facebook page or joins the Goodreads group, they’ll be notified when I make a new posting. Or they can always browse recent postings. Then, with enough followers, someone’s bound to recognize that they have some used books in a category that a prison really needs. They would then mail them off directly to the prison with the instructions I provide. If I get enough followers for the concept to work, it could really be an effective and efficient way of getting books off your shelf into the hands of people who would greatly appreciate it. You can even donate old comic books to a juvenile detention center I’ve got posted. The prison librarians have all been extremely appreciative as well. It’s difficult to hear year after year, in some cases, that they don’t have any money in the budget for new books… again.
How many books have been donated to prison libraries due to the efforts of this group?
I think of that in terms of pounds, not number of books, just because I’m more likely to feel it when I pick up a box than I am to count the books inside. So far, several hundred pounds. I’ve got one picture on the Facebook page of about six big boxes all from one donor. That was great. If you count the local book drive I’m doing through my church for the local JD Center, it’s been a lot. However, I wouldn’t know exactly how many books have been donated by followers of the site unless they report back to me, which isn’t necessary. But through the site, other than the one person with six boxes, the answer is ‘not many.’ I’ll stick with my local book drive through the church, which has been hugely successful, but gaining some ‘likes’ on FB and members on GR is really the key.
Why is there such a great need to send books to prison inmates?
Great question, thank you! Prisoners on death row in Texas, according to one documentary I’ve read, are in their cell, alone, for 22 hours a day. They need mental relief and escape. For those who are eventually getting out of prison, it goes beyond recreation. They typically ask for books on starting your own business, which makes sense, because it can be difficult to get through a job interview if you’ve been incarcerated. They also often ask for study books to help in getting your GED, and similar study books. When they ask for books like those, they’re trying to make the most of their time in prison. What if they don’t have those books? And, from a religious perspective… well, I think it’s obvious, the benefits to the donor and the receiver. I once sent a book with calculus study problems in a box to a prison in Arizona, not thinking anything of it. The prison librarian, an employee, responded to say thank you. He told me that a clerk, an inmate, had been praying a lot recently for a calculus book. When the box came in the mail, to him, that one book was an answer to his prayers.
What types of books do you recommend donating?
It varies from prison to prison, based on funding, size of the facility, and location. My FB and GR links have the specifics. But common needs are: any popular stuff that we’d read out of prison, books on starting your own business, study guide books that help toward GED, Westerns (which aren’t that popular outside prison anymore, so they can often be found in the discount bin), and, near the US/Mexico border, Spanish language reading and Spanish language Bibles. Those can be surprisingly hard to find.
What sorts of books should we avoid donating?
That varies a lot from prison to prison. Specifics are with each posting I do. Some prisons won’t take hardbacks. Some won’t take any books with images, because they get ripped out and used as cell-art. But, some are more lenient about that stuff. There are definitely some books that no prison will accept, though you probably don’t have many books in this category. That includes racially charged material, violent or sexually graphic literature, books on how to escape from prison (obvious), books on how to make poison and weapons out of common items (darn it), and, somewhat surprisingly, books on travel that include road maps and Atlases. Though that last one makes sense when you think about it. I have yet to come across a prison that would contact you and ask any questions if you accidentally donated a book in those categories, though. Every one I’ve posted and every one I anticipate would just reject the book, meaning it gets recycled or trashed (don’t expect to get it back). Also, it doesn’t do much good to send them a book on gardening, or making pottery, when they don’t have any way of fulfilling that.
What are your goals for this group? Where would you like to see this organization go in the next five years?
I’d love to have enough people following the group, whether that’s 100 dedicated donors, 1,000 occasional donors, or however the numbers have to work out, to be able to make a call to a prison librarian, get all the donation instructions, then make a posting, and have that result in a few batches of books from around the country be sent to that prison. I’d make 1-3 postings a month, giving each prison some time at the top. And people could always review past postings. But again, the key is getting people to ‘like’ the Facebook page or join the ‘Goodreads’ group, so please do! If all else fails, the local book drive has been great. But it’s finite, and only goes to one facility. The online concept could get books moving across the country.
Ways to Support Sentences:
Like Sentences page on Facebook.
Follow Sentences on Goodreads.
Check these pages for more information on how to donate to some specific detention centers and for general donation guidelines.
Did you donate?
If you’ve supported this ministry in the past or are ready to box up some books to send, let us know!