Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Books, Bars & Philosophy

I got an email from a local organization I have occasionally volunteered with. It reminded me of how the simplest ideas can make a difference. And the Prison Book Program has a simple mission:

We believe that literacy and access to reading materials are crucial for the personal, spiritual and political development of all people. With 2 million people locked up in our nation’s federal and state prisons and local jails, and with educational programming being drastically cut, the need for our services has never been greater. Education is the only tool proven to help prevent people from returning to prison again and again.
PBP puts its mission to practice in a way that is accessible and easy to plug into -- there are no long volunteer orientations or bureaucratic steps to take. If you want to help send books to prisoners, you show up (no RSVP necessary) on Tuesday or Thursday nights (or on one of their special Saturday sessions), read letters from a prisoner, find some books in PBP's library of donated books and package them for mailing. Simple as that. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find the exact books that the prisoner is requesting, and that's a fulfilling moment. Other times, you just do your best to find the closest type of book to the one requested. If you love reading, you know the joy of sharing a beloved book with a friend. Well, finding the right book to share with someone desperate for reading material gives you that same feeling.

Before the Bean was born and life got extra-busy, I also used to visit with a young man who was trying to get his college degree through the Partakers College Behind Bars program while serving time in state prison. (I highly recommend checking out a prison visiting room for an insightful and sad window into our society. That's a post for another day though.) One of the striking things that I learned was how badly many incarcerated people want books, but they just don't have access to them. And many prisons have made the rules for sending books directly to the imprisoned complicated and intimidating to their families on the outside. PBP and programs like it navigate the system and get books into the hands of inmates.

I should pause here to answer the question that many have asked about prison outreach: why spend time and money helping those who have been convicted of crimes, in some case violent ones, when there are many "good people" who need our help and many worthy "causes" and "issues"? The answer is probably different for everyone. For me, it comes down to the philosophy that I have about how to walk through this world in a life-giving way.

My philosophy in a nutshell? It starts with the idea that there are no separate causes and issues. It's all connected. Global warming and inner city violence and factory farming and cancer all stem from a culture of fear that takes life rather than sustains it. Sometimes we can find a direct cause-effect relationship. For example, economic despair leads to desperate hopelessness and all the effects that stem from it. In other instances, the problem is a byproduct of actions taken in haste or in greed or in fear that lead to results that may be unintended. The lack of education and opportunity is the root of so many social ills. So is the feeling that there are so many different issues that are intractable and impossible to solve.

The hope in all of this, in my view, comes from the fact that we all have a limitless capacity for love in the broadest sense of the world. Nobody forces us to choose between caring for an AIDS orphan in Africa and helping a disadvantaged teen pass the SAT. We can be moved by different situations at different points in our lives. We just need to find the entry point that speaks to us at any given point on the path. Yes, our energy may be limited. But the love doesn't have to be.

If ending the cycle of imprisonment is an entry point that moves you, check out these resources. If not, there are millions of ways to affirm the best of humanity each day. Pick one and do it.


  • At 6:45 PM, Blogger SustainableGirl said…

    Thank you for this post. Recently I've been discouraged about my fellow man, and feeling alienated from others because of my passion for the earth. I need a reminder of humanity's goodness now and then. I have to remember that one of these species I hope to save is my own, because of the our potential for love and peace. I have to believe it's there, and that like you said, "there are millions of ways to affirm the best of humanity each day."

  • At 12:28 AM, Blogger Norene said…

    my mom had mentioned a prison book program to me last year, and although i'd planned to follow up and look into making a book donation, i never did. thanks for the reminder.

  • At 10:15 AM, Blogger madcapmum said…

    Hmmm, I'm going to inquire about this up in our country.

  • At 9:26 PM, Blogger lauren said…

    I have to remember that one of these species I hope to save is my own, because of our potential for love and peace.

    Well-said, sustainablegirl. At times I get so frustrated with what mankind has done to the natural world, that I don't much feel like looking for the redemptive side of things. At other times, it's seeing that potential for love and peace put into action that keeps me going.


    Making a book donation is an easy effective way to help. I know from my experience with the PBP that dictionaries and Spanish-English dictionaries are the most requested books from incarcerated people all across the country.


    Didn't mean to leave you Canadians out! Let me know if you find a program up north.


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