July 27, 2023 by Anthony Manuel Caravalho
Friends of the San Quentin Library continued its successful book-fair series on June 16 at The Q. The popular event allowed incarcerated residents a rare opportunity to bestow free books upon their children, just in time for Father’s Day.
The book-fair program aims to facilitate the growth of children whose parents are imprisoned, as well as their connection to their parents.
“Being incarcerated, I’ve missed out on lots of things, [like not] reading to my nieces and nephews, they’re growing up so fast. Now they can remember me and read to me through the phone,” said resident Kevin Tran.
The biannual event is sponsored by FoSQL and hosted by the prison’s librarians. FoSQL is a non-profit organization that provides books and resources to prison libraries across the state. They believe this will ultimately benefit not only incarcerated people, but their families and communities as well.
One of the incarcerated library workers, Kai Bannon, helped to start FoSQL and came up with the idea for the book-fair program.
“The program not only gives incarcerated people the opportunity to give a gift to their children, it also helps bridge the literacy gap,” Bannon said. “The children of incarcerated people have lower literacy rates, higher dropout rates and higher risk of being incarcerated themselves. I wanted to help change that. That’s why I started this project.”
FoSQL believes access to books increases literacy rates among children, helping the next generation to attend college and find success, which can reduce the risk of intergenerational incarceration.
“Incarceration shouldn’t be a life sentence to poverty or illiteracy for an entire family,” Bannon said.
“The children ofincarcerated parentshave lower literacyrates, higher dropoutrates and higher riskof being incarceratedthemselves. I wanted tohelp change that.That’s why I startedthis project.”—Kai Bannon
Kristi Kenny, FoSQL cofounder and executive director, expressed gratitude for all the support that made the event possible.
“Last event, our outside partners distributed 300 books,” she said. “Today, because of Copperfield Books, Book Passage and other generous donors, we supplied 766 books to the incarcerated — books designed to give parents the ability to positively interact with their kids.”
Residents’ eyes lit up when they entered the book fair and saw all the books on display available to mail home. A tear or two may have been shed in gratitude.
“It means the world to send our loved ones books for them to remember us,” said resident Michael White. “Finding books that describe them or let them feel that we love them gives pieces of ourselves through the books. I know there’ll be a smile on their faces when getting their books.”
As the residents selected books from all the options, some of them gained additional insight as to the ripples of their crime — acknowledging that their families are victimized by their absence.
“[One] devastating aspect of being incarcerated is separation from my son, the ongoing loss of not being there for him…. This book fair conveys my love to him while contributing to his growth in a very positive way,” said resident Travis George.
The variety of book offerings allowed residents to reach every type of young family member — from sons and daughters to nieces and nephews to grandchildren. Librarian Charlotte Sanders said residents were also able to send greeting cards with their three book selections as part of the event, all entirely free of charge.
Kenny noted the low turnout from the Hispanic community and vowed to get the word out more for future book fairs. “We had more Spanish books available, but we did not promote that aspect well. We will get it right next time,” Kenny said.
Bannon’s vision could not have happened without the support of the area’s community of librarians.
Senior Librarian Gabriel Loiderman praised some of the key helpers, saying, “Besides Bannon, Matthew Alvarez, Charlotte Sanders and Kristi Kenny went beyond the call of duty to make this event happen.”
Staff from San Francisco’s Public Library also pitched in to make the event a reality.
Natalie Enright, reentry coordinator for the SF Public Library, felt mixed emotions on her first visit to SQ. She was concerned by all “the guards and guns,” but she loved seeing the residents’ reaction to the event.
Rachel Kinnon, manager of the SF Public Library’s Jails and Reentry Services project, said the event “allows the creation of familial bonds and memories. It’s a joy to be a part of this.”
She also spoke about how the JARS project supports the incarcerated population of the state.
“We act as your Google and can send you reference packets of up to 20 pages a month,” Kinnon said, regarding incarcerated people who write to request services. “We have three full-time staff, plus interns from San Jose State and UCLA’s master’s programs in library management, who answer most of the letters.”
Resident Edward Moss was grateful to everyone who contributed to the event and made Father’s Day special.
“Books create memories and builds skills that transfer over in many areas of a child’s life. Good memories happen when they receive their favorite books in the mail. Thank you for allowing us to empower our families,” he said.