"I have MS and am bound to a wheelchair, so I spend most of my time reading," one Tennessee prisoner wrote. "I don't have anyone on the outside that can help me with finances or packages. You are very special people to do this for us."
Prisons typically offer inmates the chance to purchase small televisions, portable CD players and radios, or even MP3 players. But not everyone can afford them. And while some facilities also offer the use of computers, access to the Internet is restricted. For many, free books fill the gap.
A Virginia inmate on 24-hour lockdown told the project volunteers that he sleeps 18-20 hours a day.
"And I have nine years to go," his letter said. "So, I want to learn a few things."
Initially, the team relied on small grants from the Faculty Senate and the WVU Center for Civic Engagement. But this past spring, it became a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, capable of accepting tax-deductible donations. It also makes the program eligible for more grants and discounts on postage, the only significant expense.
The group raises money with concerts and carnivals, letter readings and bake sales.
Though it takes only a few hundred dollars a month to keep the program running, it can only ship books every other month.
The program has no real structure. Inmates often learn of it from each other. Parents sometimes write on behalf of incarcerated children. Inmates often function as informal librarians, passing their books along to others.
Still, some institutions refuse donations, a decision Bruno said is largely subjective. She suspects some administrators question the politics of certain members. But the group's mission is apolitical.
"We are basically responding to a need. But I don't know if you can see that or understand that unless you are here with us," Bruno said. "And probably working as the warden of a prison or working in a prison mail room, you do not see it that way at all."
She understands the skepticism but shrugs.
"We are simply doing exactly what we say in our mission statement," Bruno said. "We are sending books to prisoners. That's all."