Local thrift store joins non-profit to bring books to inmates

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Jeff Kleen and his daughter Shantih browse through a selection of books at Treasure City Thrift Store on Sunday afternoon. All profits from Sunday’s sales will be donated to the Inside Books Project, an organization that provides free books to Texas prisoners.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

A partnership between the Inside Books Project and a local thrift store is helping put more books in the hands of Texas prison inmates looking to entertain and educate themselves while incarcerated.

The project sends educational materials and books to men and women serving time in prison, jails or immigrant detention centers, and receives about 800 requests a month. Last year the group mailed about 8,000 packages to inmates across Texas.

Their volunteers are staffing Treasure City Thrift Store on East Seventh Street every Sunday this summer, and the proceeds from that day’s sales help offset the costs of Inside Books’ work.

Prisoners ask for books on a range of subjects, including GED test preparation, novels and technical and trade manuals. Inside Books representatives said dictionaries are the most frequently requested items.

“For a lot of people that’s a starting point, just what words mean and how to spell them,” said John Nation, a volunteer with Inside Books. “[The books] become their property, so they’re able to use that at their own convenience to provide for their education or just to pass the time.”

Nation said many requests are from people looking for a specific title that is sometimes hard to find in their prison’s library. The organization also receives requests from people who have limited access to their prison’s library.

People in administrative segregation who may be in isolation 23 hours a day are likely to need reading material the most, Nation said. They are less likely to have regular library visits than the general prison population but still enjoy reading.

Lucy Kreutz, a 2003 radio-television-film alumna, has volunteered with Inside Books for a year and works at Treasure City on Sundays. Neither organization has any paid staff members.

Kreutz said revenue helps cover Inside Books’ costs so they can fill requests with books that supporters donate. The money mainly goes to covering the cost of postage to send the packages to the prisoners, which averages $3 a package.

“It means so much to people,” Kreutz said. “These people just want anything. They are so grateful in their letters — they just really want books.”

Over the weekend, a short documentary about Inside Books won the Lights. Camera. Help. award for best short film. The film festival encourages other cause-driven non-profits to use film and video to share their stories.

Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in criminal justice policy in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said the Inside Books Project provides a service the state doesn’t. Deitch said prison libraries often have limited collections, and prisoners may have a difficult time getting access to the library.

The significant amount of time prisoners have can be applied to educating themselves and preparing for life after prison, Deitch said.

“They can gain more insights into themselves and the reasons why they offended in the first place,” she said. “They can be helping to rehabilitate themselves.”

Deitch said education helps keep prisoners from committing crimes again after their release, and the investment made toward rehabilitation is lacking.

“We don’t invest in rehabilitation as much as we need to if we want to be a safer society,“ Deitch said.

Jeff Kleen, a Portland, Ore., resident visiting Austin for the week came to shop at Treasure City Thrift after hearing the proceeds would be going to the Inside Books Project.

“Someone I know quite well is currently serving time, so I think that makes me particularly sensitive. What does he have access to and how does he utilize his time?” Kleen said. “So therefore, books and quality books are really important. I think as much access as he and others have could be so beneficial; if he’s missing out on a lot of life experience, he’s going to have to catch up or keep up or learn in different ways.”

Printed on Monday, August 8, 2011 as: Non-profit gives books to inmates