By Reginald S. Lewis
A cold, blustery wind blew furiously through Graterford maximum-security prison in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. I lowered my gaze and turned my face away from the violent gale that tossed a million sharp daggers past the stern-faced guards escorting me to the separate visiting room for death-row inmates.
The steel door slammed shut behind me and the loud jangling of keys and chains muffled the hissing sound of the wind as the young Corrections Officer struggled to remove the handcuffs attached to the thick leather belt looped around my waist.
My heart thumped with the voluminous thunder of African drums as I waited for my visitors to arrive. I thought about the mission we were about to fulfill. Several weeks earlier, my request had been granted for the visitors to be issued a "gate pass." They had volunteered for the task- and fully supported my decision- to donate my extensive collection of books to the library at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in Philadelphia's Mount Airy section.
I had been constantly reminded to reduce my cell content, although prisoners on death row didn't have much of anything. During impromptu shakedowns, they seized my typewriter, my notes and manuscripts, and all my books (even the three I‘d written). It stifled my creativity and intellectual freedom to soar over the high stone walls of an oppressive prison.
Had a crime been committed that these books had been written? I wondered. These books were now crammed into small cardboard boxes and condemned to a sedentary life in the dust-covered property room of Graterford prison.
There had to be a better life for the books, I thought.
I began searching for a school or library or charitable organization that would take my books- a home that would properly care for them and provide a loving, stable environment where they'd be read, valued, discussed, and debated.
I found a list of local schools and their "Donation Wish List 2007"- Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice needs “books in good condition and up-to-date for our library.“ I contacted the school's principle. "Yes. We are very interested in your book donations. Our library is still in its infancy. Your contributions would be greatly appreciated," they replied.
I then performed the slow, laborious task of selecting books to be donated. My heart sunk as I picked up Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (signed by great best selling writer Sol Stein - Baldwin‘s childhood friend and editor). I ran my fingers over the smooth, white glossy cover of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. I put into another box Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, and plopped down Wrapped in Rainbows- the biography of Zora Neale Hurston and my old tattered original copy of Claude McKay's Selected Poems. I even tossed in my first book of poems, entitled Leaving Death Row.
The paucity of books in Parkway's school library can only be attributed to the lack of available resources in the Pennsylvania School System underfunded by a staggering $4.8 billion, according to a recent study released on November l5 2007 that was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislature. With a 207,893 student body enrollment, only a mere $9,047 is being spent annually per student. So few dollars are invested in educating the minds of our children, while the state would rather spend $36,000 to $40,000 a year to house a single inmate in a cell in the prison system!
The notion that my charitable gesture would, somehow, further enhance the education of these exceptionally bright young students filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Could the words between the covers of these bound books spur the genius of some neophyte young writer who'd go on to contribute great works in the annals of American letters?
Could Obama's book fuel the political aspirations of some dreamy-eyed youth contemplating public service?
I gazed through the dusky window of the visiting room as the van carrying my books sped away.
As I said goodbye to my books, I tried to imagine the sense of wonder on the faces of school children as they opened them.
Reginald S. Lewis #AY2902
SCI – Graterford
Graterford, PA 19426