There are many things inmates need help with on a day to day basis that they can’t fulfill on their own. For example, a lot of guys pass their time by reading books. When you have time on your hands like we do, reading is inevitable. So, locating and ordering books is the number one thing guys need help with.
Fiction is by far the most popular amongst inmates. There are a number of popular fantasy series, like The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan that are eternal favorites, as well as most anything from your mainstream horror and Western writers. Favorites in non-fiction range from the World Almanac to biographies to books on history.
I went through an intense 12 year fiction phase where I read everything ever written by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Graham Masterton, Michael Crichton–the list is very long. From my fiction journey, my three favorite books are: Michael Crichton’s Timeline, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club,and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But frankly, picking three is tough. I love everything by John Grisham (with the exception of A Painted House–what was he thinking?), and everything by Crichton and Bradbury. I’m now on the13th year of a non-fiction reading phase. My areas of interest have been psychology, theology, philosophy, stocks and the markets, Russian history, and a number of biographies and autobiographes about those in various positions of government both domestic and foreign. I keep nearly every book, and have amassed a personal library of some 700 books at home.
So how do prisoners locate and obtain books? For most of us the library is the first stop. Most institutions have a small library, and like any library it’s a place where you can go to read and work in peace and quiet (well, most of the time. Prison libraries can be an adventure). You can check out books for a couple of weeks just like at any library on the street, but try to find a book from a popular series you’re reading and you’ll be lucky to find a copy let alone the exact one you need to read next. What then?
The only options available are to either request the book through the inter-library loan system if your institution participates (my institution is very good with this), or find someone on the street to locate and order for you. While the inter-library loan system is good, all too often that popular book you’re looking for is also being sought by others, where waiting lists span several weeks to months.
This need has spawned a universe of small mom and pop single and multiperson businesses catering to the needs of inmates. By far, the single most sought after need is ordering books. However, needs vary over a wide range, and I’ll cover these in a moment.
Even those of us that have family able to help with outside orders, a number of guys run into the issue of time. While WE have all the time in the world here, our family members are very busy in the Rat Race. Looking up books or ordering food or clothes boxes after a long day at work ranks pretty low on the priority list. Plus, many guys hate the idea of burdening family with these menial tasks. I know I do.
A BOOK YOU WANT
Years ago when I first had the idea for this blog, I didn’t have anyone on the street that had the time to help create the site and do the postings. So I sought assistance from a woman named Barbara Nagle who ran a small one woman operation called A Book You Want, helping inmates fulfill specific needs. She then put me in contact with someone who could help, but the cost of contracting the third party was outside my means. So the site was sidelined for a couple more years, but in the process of pursuing this I discovered a number of places catering to inmates.
Guys seeking to locate and order books can do so through Barbara’s company: A Book You Want, P.O. Box 16141, Bedford, Rhode Island 02918. She will go online and find the book you want, quote you a price and a fee for her time, and if that’s fine by you, she’ll order the book on your behalf upon receiving your paid order. Originally her business started as a books only endeavor, but like so many small inmate service businesses, her offerings expanded.
Today she’ll search and print lyrics for songs you request, print Wikipedia results, order CDs, establish and fund your JPay account so you can purchase a tablet (like the 7″ tablet I use to write these posts), place food and clothes box orders for you (what’s a “box”? Check out Captured Clientele) locate and order magazine subscriptions and single issues, and even offers a gift brochure called Cherie’s Gifts where inmates can order flower bouquets for holiday and special occassions, stuffed animals for your children or sweetheart, chocolate assortments, perfumes and colognes, and even jewelry.
She’s also a pubished author having authored more than a half dozen books from a biography What It Was Like When I Was Little, to a cook book Change The World Cookbook: The Cookbook For the Health and Welfare of Ourselves and All Living Creatures, to the lighthearted The Flower That Wanted to Dance, and many others. Barbara’s business stands out above the others for her willingness to cater to each individual’s needs. She’s a beacon of kindness and warmth in the fragmented world of inmate services.
OTHER INMATE SERVICE COMPANIES
There are many companies that make a living providing pornographic photos to inmates. They are often 4×6 individually printed photos of nude, semi-nude and fully clothed models. I think it should come as no surprise to my readers that this is something that would be in demand in This World. It’s just one of the truths of incarceration.
Not long ago I remember requesting a brochure from a new company run by several women selling books. The company is Books N Things Warehouse, Inc., and their “catalog” was a single sheet of black and white paper, small print, front and back. Back then they were just called Books N Things. Today their catalog is full color and runs more than 100 pages. This should give you an idea how lucrative serving inmates can be. In addition to selling to inmates, the company sells to institutions and their libraries.
Inmate services also include pen pal options. There are hundreds of small operations aimed at connecting inmates with people on the street. Why? Incarceration can be a lonely experience, and prisoners often find friendship through pen pal services. Some guys seek pen pals for the sheer joy of meeting someone new, and others seek pen pals because they are looking for love or relationships. I know a number of guys that have met their future wives and girlfriends through inmate pen pal services.
There are pen pal services like Women Behind Bars and Captive Angels for incarcerated women, and sites like CellPals and Friends Beyond the Wall, Inc. that cater to men. Friends Beyond the Wall has been in business for decades and is recognized by guys as one of the best pen pal services out there. These companies then allow you to create a profile and include a photo of yourself for a fee, and post your page on their site for a specified period of time depending upon the ‘package’ you pay for.
For example, Friends Beyond the Wall offers personal listings for $39.95, for a 250 word post and one personal photo. If you renew for a second year, it’s $22.95. These rates are competetive in the world of inmate personals. A company like Inmate Classified, which has been in business since 1996, charges $60 for 6 months, and $100.00 for a year. Rates increase for premium custom packages with rates ranging between $120.00 to $200.00 for a year. Each of these pen pal companies offers a number of other very nice custom services.
For the LGBTQ community there are companies, organizations and non-profits dedicated to helping fill the needs of this demographic. There’s the LGBT Books To Prisoners (Outreach LGBT Community Center, 600 Williamson Street, Madison, WI 53703) that sends books and other materials to LGBT-identified prisoners. Living Hope Ministries (Box 2239, Arlington, TX 76004), which is a ministry that seeks to convert homosexuals from the lifestyle through Jesus Christ; and T.I.P. Journal (3895 Upham St., STE 40, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033) that produces a newsletter for transgender prisoners.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the niche world of inmate service companies. There are many, many wonderful people out there that run these companies, and the majority of them are either friends of those that are incarcerated, have family that are incarcerated, or even were once prisoners themselves.
One of the things I plan to do upon my release is to create a company that tailors services to inmates, like the ones you just read about. The need is strong, and these companies provide a valuable service. They even help to ease the physical and mental burden of incarceration. A number of these companies help facilitate the continued connection with family and friends, and this is a critical aspect of rehabilitation. I know, because I once turned to these companies for help. I am grateful that they exist.
When prisoners feel hope for the future they pursue constructive paths. An outside helping hand is sometimes needed. These companies are the connection.