We continue our two-part series about the Prison Book Program, located locally in Quincy. Katie Vhay, writer of Part I, interviews PBP volunteer Lee Collins.
Katie Vhay: What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
Lee Collins: I love being part of work that promotes justice. The mission of the PBP is so inspirational that when I told the members of my longstanding book group about it, they decided they wanted to volunteer, too! Now, we come as a group once a month.
To go from being a book group that has met monthly since 2001 to have nice, erudite discussions, to being one that's out there getting books into the hands of imprisoned people has rocked our worlds! We feel vital, relevant, reenergized. Every book group should do this!
I must admit, too, that finding the perfect books for someone, hoping that their day will be brightened by the books we choose for them — that feeling makes every moment at the PBP feel precious.
KV: Why do you volunteer?
LC: I volunteer because sending books to imprisoned men and women through the PBP is gratifying on at least three levels: Promoting love of reading; serving social justice; and experiencing that frisson of excitement when you find the perfect gift for someone!
KV: Is there a letter or story that stood out to you that you can share?
LC: There have been many moving letters. This writer asked us for Jewish texts that are fairly sophisticated, well beyond the basic Judaism books we had in stock. So, I showed the letter to my rabbi and asked if she had any relevant books. Within a day, the rabbi let me know she had located two superb books. I went to the synagogue to pick them up, and there was an envelope on top containing a beautiful prayer she had written for him. Can you imagine how much this blessing must’ve meant to the recipient? Moreover, Rabbi Saphire has repeatedly thanked me for giving her the opportunity to perform this mitzvah. The act of sending a book can transform our view of those in prison.
For a shorter story, I really got a kick out of a letter from Jacob in Virginia, who said this: “I bloody love you guys, you’re the Gold Standard of donation organizations. No one in the country sends better books.”
KV: What kinds of books do you especially enjoy sending?
LC: The books that I especially like to fulfill fall into two categories. First: legal books. I’m a lawyer, so when I read that someone needs legal resources, every fiber in my being wants to get them what they need. The firm where I used to practice generously donated about 25 copies of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure!
The other books that rev me up are the unusual requests — the man who adores George Eliot and regrets he has never read Middlemarch; the woman who wants to read about how to be a good absentee parent; and, most of all, anyone who asks for books about activism or politics, so I can slip in some Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Howard Zinn, or Noam Chomsky!
KV: What have you learned from this experience?
LC: First, I have seen amazing dedication from the core volunteers at PBP. They volunteer day in/day out, do tons of work behind the scenes, and make volunteers feel valued. Importantly, they impart standards: that we are here to do excellent work, to choose really good books, and to wrap and address the packages impeccably.
Second, I have comprehended, in a way that before was only theoretical, the humanity of those who are in prison. When I see the handwriting, often very carefully written but sometimes shaky or containing misspellings, I begin to feel the person and the yearning behind it. Each letter feels precious, as if I am being entrusted with a chance — I could even say a sacred chance — to make a difference in someone’s life.
Katie Vhay is an avid reader, advocate, and storyteller. She’s been the social media editor and part of the Prison Book Program Core team since 2016. She loves attending book events, knitting, baking, and dismantling systems of oppression.