By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2011
It all started when volunteer Bill Kirwen asked an inmate at Hancock State Prison, “How’s your week going?”
The man responded, “Well, I’ve read every book in the library and some of them twice. In fact, I can tell you where every book in the library is by memory. There are not that many of them, and most are so old that the print is faded.”
That conversation sparked an idea that has resulted in the total replacement of the library inventory at the prison, located in Sparta.
Driving home, Kirwen and fellow prison ministry volunteer Bill Frain hashed out the idea of collecting used books at their parish, Christ Our King and Savior Church in Greensboro. The goal was to try and collect 1,500 books from parishioner donations for the prison system.
Frain, a retired Exxon manager and founding parishioner at Christ Our King and Savior, has been visiting the prison for about 19 years, encouraged initially by Glenmary Father Chet Artysiewicz, the first pastor.
He introduced Kirwen to the ministry. The two men go to the prison weekly.
Frain said the first hurdle was to win the approval of the prison system to undertake the revitalization of the library. Everything that goes into a prison is considered contraband and must be declared and inspected, Frain noted, so prison personnel would have to inspect and catalogue every book. However, the warden and prison librarian conferenced and gave the green light.
Father Philip Ryan, Greensboro pastor, let them use the weekly church bulletin to broadcast their goal and the church nave as a collection area. The plan was to collect books over a six-week period and deliver them to the prison on a weekly basis. After the first announcement, however, it became apparent that the prison library was going to be overwhelmed. After the second delivery to the prison, the library personnel asked them to slow up. After the third delivery, the prison asked them to limit donations to 100 books a week. The six weeks has turned into four months and the drive is still running.
“We just crossed the 5,000-book mark this week,” Frain said in mid-March.
Books have ranged from bestsellers by John Grisham and Tom Clancy to a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, students’ textbooks, religious studies, and a personal library that included law books. Inspecting them, evaluating them and accepting or rejecting them is left entirely to the prison staff.
“We told them from the get-go we were not going to edit books,” Frain said. “We bring all the books we get.”
The librarian has a group of prisoners who stamp and catalogue and cull them, he said.
“She is tremendously excited,” he added. “Guys tell us it used to be loud and boisterous. Now people are lying on their bed, reading, instead of making a lot of racket.”
The facility, where Glen Johnson has been warden since last December, has over 1,300 inmates.
When told about the project, Deacon Richard Tolcher, who heads the archdiocesan Prison Ministry, said it showed “a point of awareness and a point of connection.”
“It’s amazing to me how many lay people are truly doing this kind of ministry,” he said.
The two men typically visit the prison on Friday. If either Father John Fallon or Father Yuen Caballejo, priests of the archdiocese assigned to prison ministry, comes to celebrate Mass, the volunteers spend an hour with inmates who are coming to Mass, visiting with them and also encouraging them to participate in the sacraments, like the opportunity for confession, before Mass. About 25 to 40 people come to Mass, Frain said. If no priest is available, Frain, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, will bring Communion. He said he finds the ministry very meaningful.
“I listen a lot,” he said. “I just listen an awful lot and do little things for them. I write to their parents and their children.”
“I think that it is more satisfying for us than it is for the prisoners,” Frain said. “When you can do something for somebody who cannot return the favor, it is very, very satisfying.”
As for the book drive, he and Kirwen would like people to know how quickly the response at their 530-family parish changed this prison’s library. Why not do it at every prison, they ask. Deacon Tolcher agreed and said he hoped to bring it to the attention of a statewide prison chaplain coordinator.
“It turned out real good. We were shocked,” Frain said. “We sort of wondered why they didn’t do this all over the state.”