After public defender’s online campaign takes off, jail lifts book limits, launches book club

September 12, 2018

Once upon a time, there was a public defender who wanted her clients in the jail to have books. So she started an online campaign.

At first, the funding came in with a trickle. Then, people started sharing her request on social media. Then, the story garnered some press. There was a book drive. There were the private donations. And there were the hundreds and hundreds of books.

“I wanted to be part of making a change,” said Amalia Beckner. “I’m floored by how much it took off.”

Now, three months after the do-gooder defense lawyer launched her crowdfunding effort with a modest Amazon wish list, the jail’s literary coffers are overflowing - so much so that they’ve lifted their five-books-per-pod rule.

“We changed it because now we have more inventory,” said Don Savell, the chaplaincy manager and a former sheriff’s office lieutenant.

Aside from the nearly $5,000 Beckner raised, there’s the more than 500 books donated through the book drive the Harris County Public Defender’s Office held in conjunction with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office last month.

At the same time, the jail saw an influx in its own book donations, drawing in “several” loads of 10 to 20 boxes of literature, according to Savell. Now, they’re letting Beckner start a jailhouse book club.

“I am really heartened by the jail’s response,” she said. “It’s great that they’re open to making some changes.”

The heartwarming tale started three years ago, when one of Beckner’s clients wanted more reading material. Given his charges, the man’s security classification kept him out of the jail’s educational programming and GED classes

“He was extremely bright,” Beckner told the Chronicle in June. “He was a super-smart kid, but he did have more obstacles than a lot of us in terms of extensive mental health issues growing up.”

He wanted to take the ACT, so Beckner supported his efforts by getting up early to grade his practice exams - even though he’d never be able to take the test behind bars. Then, he turned to reading, and discovered his options were limited.

So Beckner started manually photocopying bits and pieces of popular works and sending them in to her client. Then other clients started asking, and soon the young lawyer found herself coming in early to prepare reading material for the people she represented.

To Beckner, it was part and parcel of being a good defense lawyer; books could spark conversations and engender trust that would help her know her clients better and, hopefully, represent them better. And, she said, “it’s just good, mental health-wise, for people who are in a horrible situation.”

After three years of early mornings, in June she finally decided to try a different approach when she launched her crowdfunding campaign. One thing led to another and now, she’s sent in $580 of books in the past three months - and that’s not counting all the donated works destined for the jail library.

It’s an outcome that’s pleased other activist-minded lawyers.

“I’m thrilled,” said Drew Willey, a defense attorney who’s been vocal in advocating for men and women behind bars. “Every single one of those inmates, they’re going to see that change.”

The next step now is the book club. Savell pitched the idea to Beckner after the Chronicle’s July article sparked a well-meaning partnership.

“I hadn’t even thought of a book club,” Beckner said. The first group will likely be small, possibly culled from the inmates in the jail’s existing re-entry programs.

“We really want to start to have an early success to go with a population that already desires change,” Savell said.

There’s not a firm start date, and it’s not clear who will participate.

And, Beckner hasn’t picked out the first book yet. But she has one non-negotiable criterion: “I wanna find something with some hope.”

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