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Books Behind Bars Initiative Aims to Create Sustainable Libraries

The community-led effort to supply people who are incarcerated with literature is gaining steam as their donation deadline approaches.

Books Behind Bars Fundraising Drive. Help us create a sustainable library at twin towers correctional facility, men's central jail, a& Lynwood Jail. Donate from July1 - August 1
Funds collected will go to books, book carts, and reading glasses, an essential item for people who are incarcerated (source: Skylight Books)

Ahmanise Sanati, now the Mental Health Clinical Supervisor for the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, has worked at the jail for over a decade. For the past 10 years, she’s been bringing books to her incarcerated patients who otherwise do not have access to reading materials in the jail. It wasn’t until she took time off for a broken foot and came back six weeks later to discover all her books were gone that she realized how needed the books really were. “To me that was a ding-ding-ding moment. This needed to be sustainable; it cannot be dependent on me.” From there, “Books Behind Bars” was born, an initiative to create a permanent and sustainable library in three jails across Los Angeles (Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Men’s Central Jail, and Lynwood Jail).

As Regional Director of the National Association of Social Workers, Sanati works closely with the social welfare students at UCLA Luskin. It was a member of UCLA’s Reimagining Social Welfare Collective who suggested that, in order to better expand the library program beyond the world of social workers, they should reach out to Skylight Books, an independent bookstore located in Los Feliz.

The events manager at Skylight, Madeline Gobbo, had been trying to decide what to do for their quarterly fundraiser, so when she received an email explaining the initiative, she knew this would be the perfect collaboration. “We are in an era where institutions aren’t providing the support that is necessary for all of us to live fulfilling lives. And this is a small thing that we can do to reach out and affirm to each other that, hey, not only are you worthy of having a good life, you’re also worthy of having pleasure and knowledge and information and access to ideas that might open your world up,” she told Knock LA.

Sanati also stressed the importance of incarcerated folks having access to reading materials and books, telling Knock LA that she has always used books in her treatment of her mental health patients. “[Books] are a really meaningful way to connect with my clients, and [give] them a concrete tool they can utilize to get better, to feel good, to buy time, to escape from the reality that they’re in,” she explained.

When asked what type of books are frequently requested by those living in the jails, Sanati mentioned a range of different genres and types. There are folks in the jail who were never taught how to read, “so graphic novels have been in demand,” as well as “things that would appeal to those of lower reading levels” without being geared toward kids. “Books in Spanish are in such demand,” as well as self-help books, books on mental health and how to deal with depression or anxiety, and inspirational stories about “people who have endured their own hardships.” The Skylight GoFundMe page even has an Amazon wish list to give people an idea of the kinds of books they’ll be purchasing, although they make sure to note the books will not be purchased from Amazon but rather directly from their distributors.

The Skylight Books storefront in Los Feliz (source: Skylight Books)

In addition to books, the Skylight fundraiser will help pay for mobile book carts and reading glasses. Sanati explained that, unlike in a prison, the people in the jails cannot roam freely, so the books will have to come to them. Mobile book carts will allow the books to be moved from pod to pod so everyone gets a chance to pick out the books they want to read. As far as reading glasses, the only way someone in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility can get prescription glasses is if someone from the outside brings them — which would require that person to not only have someone to do that for them, but the monetary means to do so. If someone needs basic reading glasses, like the magnifying kind you’d find at the dollar store, they must purchase them from the commissary. “A lot of our guys are homeless or don’t have the financial means to buy glasses,” Sanati said, so she began purchasing reading glasses in addition to collecting books. The money from Skylight’s fundraiser will pick up where Sanati left off and provide reading glasses to those who need them, because “the books are useless if they don’t have the glasses!”

The Skylight fundraiser, which is currently about two-thirds of the way to its goal of $10,000, ends August 1, and every dollar helps. However, the library project will not stop once the fundraiser stops. Right now, there is a hold on physical book donations while Sanati organizes how to get such a large number of books into the facilities, but she hopes to open up new and used paperback book donations soon. If anyone would like to get involved with the project in any way, Sanati suggests emailing email hidden; JavaScript is required with any inquiries.

Shopping at Skylight is another great way of showing your support for the initiative, as Gobbo explained, Skylight is here “not only to sell books to customers but also to be a part of the community and support folks who maybe aren’t customers but who love books … We are here for other reasons besides profit, and [people] should keep supporting us so we can keep doing that.” Beyond that, sharing the fundraiser on social media is incredibly helpful.

Sanati reiterated this is truly a community effort, with help from UCLA students, the folks at Skylight, and her colleagues. She has high hopes for the future of the library project, and her wheels are already turning for what it could look like down the line.

As stated above, to get involved or ask any questions about the project, please contact Ahmanise at email hidden; JavaScript is required. Knock LA would like to remind interested folks that this is a volunteer-run effort, so you may not hear back right away.