A version of this story ran in the April 2012 issue.
Only his legs are visible as Skot Odierno digs through a huge wooden box outside the squat green building in East Austin that houses the Inside Books Project. The box is packed with donated books for Texas prisoners. Scooping up a stack to take inside, Odierno, the project’s volunteer co-coordinator, says the haul of hundreds of books represents about a week’s worth of donations for the nonprofit organization, the only one of its kind in Texas.
The scene is reminiscent of Odierno’s introduction to Inside Books 12 years ago. “I was Dumpster-diving books a lot at Half Price Books,” says Odierno, 41. “I heard about this and started bringing books. Then I started volunteering with them.”
Odierno gradually became more involved in the project, and now spends 20 to 30 hours a week helping run the organization. “I work in Zilker Park—that’s my real job,” he says, laughing. “Or the one I get paid for.”
The work is worth it to him because of the unique mission of Inside Books, which was founded in 1998. He says books help take the edge off life in the Texas prison system, the second-largest in the nation, with more than 156,000 inmates.
State prisons have libraries, but inmates have limited, and, in some cases, no access to them. And, Odierno adds, the selection of books is limited. “What we do is send books to individuals so they are their property, and they can do what they want with them,” he says.
The books also help prisoners pass the time—and learn something, Odierno says. “It might help you educate yourself so when you get released you can get a job.”
Odierno helps coordinate book mailings twice a week at Inside Books’ headquarters. The space, donated to the group free of charge, looks something like an independent bookstore, with dim lighting and an eclectic array of sagging couches, tables and mismatched chairs. A bar like one you might see at a coffee shop stands along the back wall. A small maze of labeled shelves includes an array of titles. A book about Samoan mythology shares space with a book about the philosopher Kant and some pulp fiction.
With the cache of books the donation bin has netted, you might expect the shelves to be crammed full, but Odierno and the 10 or so volunteers working on a Thursday night in late February keep the stock moving. The volunteers, including high school students and retirees, hustle to find books that prisoners have requested. Requests range from the practical to the poignant. One inmate asks for trade manuals on electrical work and science textbooks. Another, an aspiring poet, asks for anything about Buddhism.
One volunteer fields a letter asking only for a book about making pop-up greeting cards. “That’s all he asked for,” the volunteer keeps repeating as she searches the shelves.
While volunteers pull books and package them, Odierno does paperwork and ping-pongs around the room helping tie up “loose ends.” In an average week, he’ll perform anything from administrative duties to grunt work: hosting fundraisers, coordinating volunteer sessions, sorting books onto library carts and organizing the space Inside Books occupies.
Odierno says the organization responds to about 700 letters a month. If a specific requested book isn’t available, volunteers will find something on the same subject to send. Some subjects and titles are off limits, due to restrictions placed by the Texas prison system. Books dealing with fighting, gambling, or containing nudity are forbidden.
The most requested books are dictionaries, and educational books are also hugely popular. The educational aspect of reading is something Inside Books prioritizes, leading to a spin-off called Sending Solidarity, Odierno says. The six-month-old initiative sends books to 140 teenagers in the Clements Unit in Amarillo, an adult prison where educational opportunities are limited.
Inside Books currently averages a four- to five-month delay between request and delivery. Odierno says there’s a need for similar projects across the state.
“Right now we’re talking to some people in Dallas who want to start a book project too,” he says. “I don’t know what will come of it, but that’s one thing we’ve always wanted, to get other cities to do this.”