Authors step up for inmates in need with book auction

October 23, 2020
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Telephone calls. Shoelaces. Soap for washing their hands during this pandemic. Money to keep an essential helpline going.

When Toronto author Thea Lim first came across an auction for the Toronto Prisoner’s Rights Project, where visual artists’ work was sold to raise funds for necessities such as the ones listed above, her interest was piqued. “It made me think about whether I could do that for books,” she says.

The other thing crossing her mind at the time, she adds, was the Encampment Support Network, a group that helps support those living in tent encampments in the city’s parks “due to lack of safe and affordable housing because of COVID.”

“But it also made me think about how it can feel very overwhelming and daunting to try and deal with some of the enormous systemic problems that we’re seeing.”

Not so daunting if a lot of people put in a little effort. And so she approached the people she knew.

“I approached authors I’d met at festivals and readings over the past two years and sent out an email,” says Lim. She was hoping they’d donate a book she could auction off and, like the artists, raise money.

And the authors responded, many with signed first edition hardcover books: Esi Edugyan, Sheila Heti, Dionne Brand, Heather O’Neill, Tanya Tagaq, Mona Awad, David Chariandy, Iain Reid, Ian Williams, and Waubgeshig Rice, among others.

Eden Robinson, author of the “Trickster” books that inspired the new CBC series, has donated an unreleased galley, “complete with copy edits, fingerprints and gluten-free cheese biscuit marks on ‘Return of the Trickster,’ which is due out March 31, 2021.” The lot will also include hardcover first editions of “Son of a Trickster” and “Trickster Drift,” and Robinson will match your bid.

From idea to click to ready-to-bid has happened in about three weeks, Lim says. She and her husband steal time whenever they can — “we have two little kids” — with him building the website Book Auction to Support Prisoners.

Visit the site and you’ll be able to bid; there’s also background and information about why they’re doing it.

“The auction is responding to conditions in our federal and provincial prisons, including: the mass incarceration of Indigenous and Black people; the higher risk of COVID-19 in prison and the resulting worsening conditions; and the fact of more than five recent prison strikes in Ontario alone, protesting: lack of clean drinking water, lack of soap, dirty clothes, and inedible food,” their initial press release said.

Two visual-arts auctions raised about $28,000 according to Jessica Evans, an organizer of the Toronto Prisoner’s Rights project and an assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson University.

“Seeing the kind of public attention to these issues, we’ve really wanted to grab on to that kind of contemporary cultural moment and get people interested in thinking about prisoner’s rights and thinking about alternatives to incarceration,” Evans says.

Three organizations are set to benefit: Book Clubs for Inmates; the COVID-19 Emergency Prisoner Support Fund run by the Toronto Prisoner’s Rights Project; and the Jail Accountability & Information Line run by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP).

“We’re really excited about not only the possibility to raise funds for the various projects, but also just to get people talking about this,” says Evans.

“We’re flagging the dire kind of financial need of folks inside and folks coming out. When folks come out, they have literally nothing. They need shoelaces … there’s a real lack of resources available to assist in transitioning from incarceration to the outside.

“But even inside, we know that under COVID-19, folks were calling the hotline the CPEP in Ottawa runs indicating that they couldn’t get increased access to soap.” They had to purchase those items through the canteen, Evans says, “and so these funds are filling a critical gap in the system.”

Bidding on the items begins Monday morning, Sept. 28 at 9 a.m., and runs to Oct. 3 at 9 p.m.

Authors are continuing to contact Lim to donate, so the items available continue to grow. There’s a minimum bid of $20. To see what’s included in the auction or to make a bid, go to

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