“The objective of this missive is an appeal for knowledge,” begins a two-page letter from Francisco Garcia to “Dear Schuster,” at the New York office of Simon & Schuster. Mr. Garcia, until recently an inmate in an upstate New York prison, doesn’t have specific titles in mind, but he’s asking for free books.
A Maryland inmate named David K.C. Xavier is much more focused. Writing on stationery that carries a line drawing of Mr. Spock, he includes a “wish list” of 66 Star Trek books. Appealing to “Dear Editor,” he goes on to ask for the “novelized version of each Star Trek movie.” Admitting that he’s asking for a lot, he adds, “if you cannot send all of them, please send what you can.”
The letters are part of a little-known but active correspondence between prisoners and publishers. Most prisoners are indigent, but with endless hours to fill, they yearn for the escape that a good book can deliver. Publishers, meanwhile, believe in reading, and they are buried under mountains of books that didn’t find paying customers and might end up as mulch. Prisoners sense the synergy. “I beseech you to forward them to me rather than discard them as refuse,” implores George Rainey, a Georgia inmate.
The appeals frequently work. “It’s a progressive thing to do, and it doesn’t cost much,” says Stuart Applebaum, the public-relations chief at Random House Inc., the nation’s biggest consumer book publisher. He says he sends a lot of paperbacks, which cost less than 50 cents to produce. “Our goal is to have our books read — ideally by people who buy them,” he adds. “But we’d rather have them read by people without means than not have them read at all.”
Since letters and postcards land everywhere, with editors, executives and publicists, and publishers don’t have any formal policies for dealing with prisoners, no one knows how many prisoner letters and free books are crossing the mails. More than 100 such letters were made available to this newspaper by Simon & Schuster.
It also isn’t clear which mode of entry is most effective. Jerry W. Hamilton, a Texas inmate, went straight to the top, firing off a letter to Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom Inc., Simon & Schuster’s corporate parent. “Books are very scarce in prison,” Mr. Hamilton writes, adding that he would be happy to accept “any old, used, damaged or overstocked books.”
He adds: “Mr. Redstone, I assure you that I will not pass out your address, or be a nuisance.”
It didn’t work. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Hamilton reports: “No, Mr. Redstone did not write me back, nor did he send any books.”
While most prisons have libraries, inmates describe them as woefully inadequate. In a letter to Macmillan, Jerry A. Blair, a 38-year-old inmate in Indiana’s Bartholomew County Jail, writes that there isn’t “a decent book” in “this jail’s closet-size so-called library.” Mr. Blair, who says in a telephone interview that he was convicted of arson, also writes that the books “that are available are read over and over again until they simply disintegrate from constant handling.”
Stephen Redd, an inmate at California’s San Quentin State Prison, complains in a letter to Simon & Schuster that he has even fewer choices than other prisoners because he’s on death row. The “death-row library is a pale shadow of the `mainline’ library” that serves other inmates, he writes.
Most prisoners leave unsaid the reason for their incarceration. Some say they were framed. Mr. Redd says he wants a copy of “The Murder of the Rosenbergs,” explaining: “The framing of the Rosenbergs by unscrupulous FBI agents (including Hoover himself) parallels my case in many ways (altered evidence, etc.).”
Letter writing doesn’t come naturally to many prisoners, but some write page after page to articulate their pitch. Kenneth O’Bannon, a California inmate, was more succinct. In a two-sentence postcard, he blurts: “I’m stuck here in Pelican Bay State Prison with nothing to read.”
Most prisoners make a point of saying they’re broke. Mr. Hamilton says his prison doesn’t pay prisoners “even a token wage” for work they do. He also offers this reassurance to Mr. Redstone: “You don’t have to entertain the idea that by providing me with literature you will be losing my business because I can guarantee you that I will be here for more time than I want to think of.”
In his letter to Simon & Schuster, Brian K. Meyer, 35, says he earned just 12 cents an hour for work he performed in a Minnesota prison. “It took three hours of work to pay for the stamp on the outside of the envelope,” he writes. It turned out to be a worthwhile investment. During a telephone interview, Mr. Meyer, who was released last year, says he received about 50 books after coming up with stamps for about 75 letters. He asked for books about Judaism, and he says Simon & Schuster sent one, on Jewish history.
The types of books requested varies dramatically. There are lots of requests for dictionaries, some from prisoners who say they are learning to read for the first time, and for Bibles, some of them from writers who have had life-changing religious experiences. Although James B. Long, an Arizona inmate, wrote that he has “no money,” he nonetheless went on to say that he has become interested in personal finance and requested books on the topic.
Many ask for self-improvement titles, particularly Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Cornelius Wells, a Texas inmate until a few months ago, writes that he wants to start a business someday. He asks for books related to “self-help and empowerment, business, personal development, psychology and personal relationships.”
Kenneth Sletten, a 42-year-old Arizona prisoner who says he has been sentenced to “life without possibility of any parole,” says he has developed an interest in physics, and he requests books about mechanical engineering. In an interview, Mr. Sletten says 11 of the 12 publishers he wrote to sent books. Addison Wesley Longman Inc. sent 17. “Most people think no one gives away anything for free, but publishers are happy to give away knowledge,” he says.
In responding to requests, publishers say they exercise a degree of editorial control. “We don’t take a hanging-judge role,” Mr. Applebaum says, “but I wouldn’t send a book about a serial killer to a prisoner.” Instead, he says he frequently sends novels written by Louis L’Amour, the best-selling author of frontier-adventure stories, explaining: “Louis was a great believer that reading was a great rehabilitative motivator; he also believed that everyone deserves a second chance.”
Johnny Bailey, an Indiana inmate, says he is interested in every kind of book except for one: “Please no courtroom dramas,” he writes in a letter to Simon & Schuster. “I’ve seen enough of that.”
Mr. Bailey says he has written to several publishers since 1992, but that Bantam Books is the only one that has responded so far. It sent one book “about a young black male growing up in today’s society,” he writes in a letter to the Journal. “Very boring, but read nonetheless.”
What he really wants is a good Clive Cussler novel. “When Cussler’s `Dirk Pitt’ drinks a rum punch, I can taste it,” he says. “A book, simply put, is a key to our cells.”