Two facts motivate Kai Safran and his new Rogue Liberation Library (RLL0 — that prison life is awful and that books allow incarcerated people the chance to escape to another world and perhaps help build a new life when they gain freedom again.
Safran, a local farmer, has set up his library at Ashland’s Peace House, and has organized fundraising and volunteers to help collect and ship donated books to prisoners on an individual basis.
“Books take their minds off their circumstances. Books with humor, like ‘Running With Scissors,’ are great for them,” he says. “Educational books are really crucial because the main reason they’re behind bars is they lacked the education and made wrong choices.”
Prisoners seem to like fiction and nonfiction in equal numbers — and especially enjoy crime suspense thrillers, such as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series, he notes. Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series is also a hit.
Volunteer Mary Ann Jones says, “Books can take you anywhere. I love books and feel all human beings need to be treated with empathy and compassion. And people are always trying to get rid of books. It’s so much better if you can send them to people who really want them … They’re human beings, just like us.”
Safran reads a quote from “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” He says that inspires him not to view prison as a “human landfill.” Inmates, he says, have a lot of down time and free time and can read and write letters and are “starved for any sort of connection,” especially if in solitary.
Volunteer Rose Goodwin of Peace House corresponds with an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in California and says, “Books are such a cool, great way to escape.” Referring to the Stevenson quote, she says, “the mass incarceration going on now strikes me on an emotional, human level that it’s good to be kind to people and have empathy for the reality of the suffering of being in prison.”
Safran is from Virginia and his RLL works with Library Solidarity and VA Organizing (virginia-organizing.org) to establish pen-pal relationships with inmates and take their requests for certain books, usually sent in twos or threes directly to them, he says.
Safran personally writes to prisoners in Indiana, Idaho, California and Texas. From his pile of letters, he shows one saying, “I’m half way through the Millennium series. It’s surprisingly good. I am normally not a novel type of guy, unless I am in the hole (solitary confinement) … Thank you for all that you do. I appreciate you more than you know. You’re an awesome person, bro. You’ve been unwavering in your correspondence. It’s pulled me through some tough times to know I have such a loyal friend.”
RLL welcomes books, shelving and volunteer help. Safran also seeks a recent Mac computer, graphic design help for promotional brochures and fundraising and grant-writing help. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 541-210-0878.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.