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Creating Freedom Libraries for Virginia prisoners

Books like Yes to Life, written by a concentration camp survivor, inspire Virginia inmates to live more meaningful lives.
Beacon Press
Books like Yes to Life, written by a concentration camp survivor, inspire Virginia inmates to live more meaningful lives.

Calvin Arey’s problems began early in his life. In his teens, he says, he became an alcoholic.

"I got in trouble almost from the beginning when I first started drinking." he recalls. "I got kicked out of high school, kicked out of the Marine Corps for drinking, and then lost job after job after job."

Then, in 1965, he and a lady friend got into trouble with the law.

"We committed a series of robberies to get the money to keep on drinking," Arey explains. "I got arrested in Norfolk and was sentenced to 30 years in the Virginia State Penitentiary."

During a search of his cell, prison guards found a pair of scissors. For that they put him in solitary confinement.

"Back then solitary confinement was bread and water in the basement of C Building at the old Virginia State Penitentiary. You had nothing to read – nothing. You couldn’t talk to anyone. You were isolated in a solitary cell with bread and water, and I swore an oath that if given a chance I was going to read books."

With help from the ACLU attorney who argued the Loving case in Virginia, Arey was able to get his sentence reduced. After eight years behind bars, he went free, moved to Boston and began a new life selling real estate and reading.

"Right now I’m surrounded by 2,500 books – 500 of them are signed by the authors," he says. "I was relentless in meeting authors and getting their signatures."

He’s especially proud of meeting the late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis.

"I had the book open. I had a pen in my hand. I tapped him on the shoulder. Imagine tapping John Lewis on the shoulder! He turned around, and I handed him the pen. He was very gracious. He shook my hand, and he told me to keep the faith."

Which for Arey meant corresponding with and ordering books for prisoners – volumes that could inspire them to do good things with their lives. He likes two books by concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl -- Yes to Life and Man’s Search for Meaning. The Angola Prison memoir, Solitary by Albert Woodfox. Chris Hedges on teaching students in prison – Our Class, Naomi Klein’s attack on capitalism -- Shock Doctrine and many more.

"Right now I’m sending books into nine prisoners in six Virginia prisons – over 100 books so far."

Retired since the pandemic, Arey admits it hasn’t been easy.

"I’m on social security. I’m 81 years old. I don’t have hardly any savings, so I canceled Comcast and Verizon landline. That freed up $255 a month, and I buy books with it."

And friends in the local seniors’ club have collected money for his cause. Arey called these collections Freedom Libraries, because he hopes they will open minds, inspiring readers to turn their lives around and do good things with the time they have left. How’s it working? We’ll talk with three prisoners who are lending books from their Freedom Libraries in our next report.


Yesterday we told you about a man who spent eight years in the old Virginia penitentiary – much of that time in solitary confinement. Inmates were given only bread and water, but what he really missed was something to read. Today, at the age of 81, he’s sending dozens of books to prisoners in Virginia – works that appear to be changing attitudes and behavior. Sandy Hausman spoke with inmates reading those books and filed this report.

Inmates say reading has changed them
They take responsibility for their crimes, set goals and vow to be better

Tutankhamun Waterman is serving a life sentence at the Augusta Correctional Center for murder. After a violent childhood – clashing with a stepfather who abused him, his sister and his mother – Tut got a gun.

"He and I ended up getting into a fight when I was 21, and from that point forward I told myself I would never allow something like that to happen to my mother again, and nobody realized how unhinged I was mentally.”

One day, when three of his cousins insulted his mother, Waterman lost control.

“It took seven words that I live with every day with regret. ‘Your mother is not a good woman.’ It changed my life. I had the gun on me, basically to protect my mother from my stepfather if he came back, and y’know all my cousin said was that, and I became somebody else in that moment, and I took their lives. When I realized what I did, I put the gun in my mouth, and I thought about taking myself out.”

Instead, he turned himself in – pleading guilty, and is now serving a life sentence, but he’s determined to make that life count – a goal he set after corresponding with a former prisoner. Calvin Arey sent a book called Yes to Life by Viktor Frankl -- a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp.

"Yes to Life basically teaches you to have hope. No matter what situation you’re in, you still have hope. One of the brothers up here contemplated suicide, and so for two hours we had a back and forth where I was utilizing one of the stories in Viktor Frankl’s Yes to Life.”

That man is alive today, he says, and the guy is happy – getting support for his mental health, planning a legal appeal of his current sentence, talking more with fellow inmates and with his family. Arey has sent Waterman a dozen other works about people who have overcome adversity – about the history of oppressed people who had it even worse than today’s prisoners.

"We have Railroaded by Dale Brumfield. That talks about the first 100 executions in Virginia, and that was a hard read for me. That was a very hard read for me, and I put it down to be truthful with you, because reading what they did to people who were incarcerated back in 1618, 1619 on up they had 768 executions, and the youngest one was 12 years old. It stopped me in my tracks, because I was just like, ‘This is horrible!’ Because a lot of times they were being put on trial, and 48 hours later, after they were found guilty, executed.”

The books’ donor called these collections Freedom Libraries, a name that makes sense to inmate Terrence Vaughn.

"Understanding Mass Incarceration by James Kilgore and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibrahim Kendi. These books have put me in a place where my mind is free from the everyday challenges of being in prison. The negative things that go on in here – you escape this.”

Jamal Gethers agrees, adding that stories of people transformed by prison, have inspired him.

"Being behind bars you always are told that you’re not ever going to be nothing but a career criminal or a monster, or whatever it is people label us as. After you read these books it’s like, ‘Okay, now you can be better. I am going to do better.!"

Not only do inmates read, but they gather for informal discussions. Waterman and librarians at five other prisons say the books also help people to understand why they committed crimes in the first place.

"Right now a lot of guys are reading What Happened to You by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey about trauma and how to deal with trauma and grow from it, because you know that’s a big issue in here. A lot of people have suffered from domestic violence, abuse, and this book is a guiding light for a lot of us + to the extent of being able to open up and talk about my problems."

And at the River North Correctional Center, librarian Vaughn says these books guide readers through the steps needed to transform their lives.

"First, accept responsibility and accountability for why you’re here. You’re here by your own hand. Second is to take the necessary courses, the things that they have available to us here -- to grow and to mature, and then third is to put yourself in the mind frame that will allow you to be a better man each and every day than you were the day before. Set goals for yourself, and start putting yourself in a position so when you do go home you don’t have to go back to selling drugs or stealing cars. You don’t have to choose crime as a career."

He hopes his own experience proves that point. He’s taken every course offered by the prison, enrolled in a college level correspondence program to learn about social media and business, all while working as the prison barber seven days a week for about $54 a month.

"I really love cutting hair, and I plan on opening my own barber shop when I get released. It keeps me occupied and out of trouble."

As word of the Freedom Libraries spread through the Augusta Correctional Center, Waterman says some prisoners turned to books for the first time.

106 – You know like one guy in here doesn’t know how to read, and I was like, “Look, I got you!’ So we’re sitting in the pod every day, basically teaching him his ABCs and how to sound words out."

Prison administrators know about the libraries, and while they sometimes refuse to let certain books in, they have not stopped the lending program. Clearly, says Jamal Gethers, this is a good thing for Virginia’s Department of Corrections.

"These books are helping people get their lives together, helping people change their way of thinking. These are the type of books that prisons need to help people be more aware of what’s going on and what they can do to help be a change."

Prisons limit the number of books an inmate can have. It’s usually around a dozen, but someday Waterman hopes to expand his library by adding works that will help inmates who are released from prison can maintain a positive mental attitude and become productive members of society. As for his own future, Waterman has been writing books himself, and a lawyer – impressed with what he has done with his life – volunteered to write a clemency petition to the governor.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief