Almost ten years ago, I spoke with Clinton Festa about a really cool charity he founded called Sentences Book Donations. Through Sentences, he helps people donate books to prisons and other similar facilities. He does all the research for you. Simply pop onto the Sentences Facebook and Goodreads pages to find a place accepting donations. He’ll list what types of books facilities are interested in and how to send them. Then, you simply box up your donation and head to the post office to send it directly to the facility.
It’s been so long since my original interview that I thought it would be fun to check in. I’m curious what’s changed and how the book donation ministry is going now.
Q & A with Sentences Book Donations Founder Clinton Festa
Welcome back! I cannot believe it’s been almost ten years since we first spoke about your ministry, Sentences Book Donations. Can you start us off with a quick refresher on the goal of Sentences?
Glad to be back! In 2014 I was just getting started, but the goal today is the same: to link book donors with prison libraries so they can donate exactly what the prisons need. We contact prisons directly to find out specifically what the residents are requesting, so the donors have reliable information and can make an efficient donation. Then we share that information on Facebook and Goodreads so that the donors can see what they have and are willing to donate, knowing their donated books will be read and enjoyed.
When we last spoke, Sentences was nearing the end of its first year of operation. Now, you’re coming up on ten years. What’s something unexpected that you’ve learned about the prison system and getting books into the hands of inmates in the last ten years?
How much the donation difficulty level varies from prison to prison. Some states have vastly different security measures, and some facilities have very specific policies. Others can be as easy to donate to as Goodwill. I guess they all have to determine their policies as needed, but if the donor needs to know anything to make a donation, I’ll include that in the posting for the facility.
I know each facility has its own guidelines or requirements for what they hope people will donate. The requests can vary a great deal. What are some common genres or formats you frequently see requests for?
The general rule is that if it’s popular on the outside, it’s popular inside the prison system. They also tend to like recently published fiction, just like the rest of us. However, there are a couple differences. Although the height of popularity for the Western genre has long passed on the American book market, they’re still in very high demand inside prisons. They’re also usually thin, small paperbacks, which get worn out quickly, so if you have any Westerns, please consider donating! Many facilities are also in great need of Spanish-language reading.
Have you noticed any change in the last ten years? Is it easier or more difficult to donate books these days?
I’ve actually seen it get easier over time. When I started, there were usually more barriers to donating (depending on the facility or the state policies), like forms to fill out in advance, policies preventing sharing the information on social media, and just a general reluctance to receive books via USPS directly from unknown donors. Today it’s gotten less restrictive, which is great, but some places will still only receive books shipped directly from a vendor for safety and security reasons.
Are you in contact with facilities after they receive donations? Have you heard stories about the books’ impact on the inmates’ lives? Anything in that vein that you’d like to share?
Yes, and that all depends on the librarian. I’ve met some truly dedicated and passionate professionals who have been wonderful to work with. The follow-up stories usually come not after I contact them to get their needs and donation instructions; it comes following a donation. I’ve got some really wonderful thank-you notes and e-mails over the years that I still hang on to. Anyone who donates may get one of these responses, depending on the individual librarian. It’s really nice when they do that. It makes it real.
When we spoke back in 2014, you calculated that hundreds of pounds of books had been donated through Sentences Book Donations. Have you continued to track book donations? What would you estimate has been donated from the beginning of the organization to now?
Great question. By now, it’s thousands, but I don’t have very accurate numbers. When I share the information, it’s up to the donors to bring their books to the USPS to donate. Always ask for the media rate! You can ship a ton of books across the country for surprisingly little money. But since the donors ship directly to the prisons, I don’t know how much they send unless they tell me or unless the librarian lets me know. If you do donate, I’d love to hear from you! If you have pictures of your donation before you send it, I’d love for you to post them on our pages!
Is there a process you prefer for donors to follow? Anything they should include in their packages when they send books?
Each posting may have specific instructions, so just keep an eye on that when you donate. Usually, just putting the books in a cardboard box, going to the Post Office, and asking for the media rate will work. But always include a return address on the box. That’s a security thing; most prisons will have a policy that they’ll have to discard anything they receive if it doesn’t have a return address.
Are there any parting thoughts or resources you’d like to share?
I’d just like to thank everybody who has donated and encourage anybody who is considering it. If you have books on the shelf that are gathering dust, they can get new life and be greatly appreciated by people who have limited recreational options. Donating is very easy and not that expensive as long as you ask the Post Office for the media rate. Also, if you see a place you’d like to donate to on our page, but the instructions were posted over a year ago, feel free to reach out to me via Facebook and Goodreads pages. I’ll give the prison a call and verify the info is current. Thank you for donating!
Have you donated books through Sentences?
I recently donated the books pictured in the box above. I hope to donate another box before the end of the year.
Have you heard of Sentences before? If so, have you ever donated books using the listings on Facebook or Goodreads? Are you planning to, now that you’ve heard about it? Leave a comment and let me know.