Nick Alford – The Corsair
Sandy Welch was hitchhiking down Kingfield Road in Cantonment when she was picked up by a passing motorist. When asked where she was going, she said she was on her way to a gas station. The driver told her that wasn’t a problem and signaled for her to hop in. She smiled, said “thank you” and sat down.
“I’m gonna pick up some beer,” she said. “I’m breaking eight years of sobriety tonight.”
She had been trying to hide the fact that she’d been crying; her God Bless America sweatshirt was soaked with tears and she was sniffling and trembling. She broke down and let it out.
“My son was murdered in prison this morning,” she said.
Michael Welch, 31, was stabbed to death in the Santa Rosa County Jail in late 2009 while serving a term for drug possession, according to his mother.
“He was supposed to be released in less than six months,” she sobbed. “That was my baby they killed.”
Stories like this shouldn’t be uncommon, right? Florida has the largest prison population in the United States — a country with the largest number of inmates on the planet. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics, over 3 million American adults (20 percent of the world’s inmate population) are currently in prison, far surpassing both the United Kingdom and China. The United States spent over $50 billion to maintain its penal institutions last year.
Altogether, one out of every 45 Americans is in some sort of correctional program, whether it be parole, probation or incarceration. The majority of those incarcerated are locked up for consensual or victimless crimes: drug use, gambling, prostitution and traffic violations.
While in jail, inmates cannot receive books and educational materials from anyone other than a publisher or a bookstore. So Lauren Anzaldo, co-founder of the Open Books Prison Book project in Pensacola, has been trying to help. Since it opened in October 2008, Open Books is one of only a few places where a Florida inmate can get books.
The non-profit Open Books sells books at a discount to its patrons as well as delivering free books to inmates in Florida prisons. For a few hours every Monday at 6 p.m., a handful of volunteers gathers in a small building on the corner of Barrancas Avenue and Second Street to read letters from inmates and try to fulfill their requests. The idea is that inmates who better themselves through reading are less likely to return to prison.
“To realize you are helping somebody that you will never meet,” said Anzaldo, “It’s just something that really makes a big impact in your life.”
The bookstore itself is very small, and crammed with a huge variety of books. It is run solely by volunteers, and every penny made beyond operating costs goes for postage and shipping materials for the project.
The hunger for reading material is evident by the number of letters pouring in.
“We receive between 10 and 20 letters a week” said Anzaldo, “We probably get an average of 50 letters a month.”
Several letters request how-to books, according to Anzaldo, but most requests are for dictionaries and thesauruses. Some letters, like the one from a female inmate in Broward County, just ask for someone to talk to.
“We’ve had a few inmates request books about quantum physics or structural engineering,” said Anzaldo, “It really varies. Sometimes you do get letters from those who have already received books and just want to talk about them.”
Want to help?
It takes about six months for a prison inmate to get a book from the Open Books Prison Book project so volunteers are always welcome to help expedite shipments. Also needed are contributions of books, shipping materials, photo copies and cash. For more information, visit openbookspcola.org.
Did you know?
One hundred percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, I.D. tags and armor vests are made by federal prisoners. Prison inmate labor also accounts for 93 percent of domestically produced paints, 36 percent of home appliances and 21 percent of all office furniture.