Emily Boullear (left) and Christina Hake, founders of Free Thought, are working to bring books to Missouri prisons.
“All it takes is one book to change a life,” says Christina Hake of Free Thought
, a Missouri-based nonprofit that donates reading material to juvenile and adult pretrial detention centers across the state and beyond.
Hake and Emily Boullear founded Free Thought in 2020. Although based in Kansas City, the founders travel across Missouri once a month to volunteer at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center and to donate books to detention centers in St. Charles, Jackson County and Montgomery City. In the last two years, the organization has donated 3,600 books, which have reached more than 8,000 incarcerated individuals.
The idea for Free Thought came when Boullear was working in a public defender’s office and visiting clients in jail. “At times it would feel awkward to sit in front of a complete stranger for the first time whose life is just incredibly wrecked,” says Boullear. “They’re in this hellscape, caged, and they don't know when they're getting out. To fill in the gaps of awkwardness, I would ask the clients what they were reading.”
Most of her clients told her that the book cart in the detention center was terrible. “At that point it seemed like offering something as basic as books was such a simple answer,” Boullear recalls. “Reading is a basic human right, and it offers some sort of hope and escape.”
Boullear and Hake discussed the idea and did some research. “We found through the Bard Prison Initiative that recidivism rates were reduced from 70 to 80 percent to just 5 percent when prisoners are offered a resource such as books,” Hake says. “That sounds crazy, I even had to research that, but it really does make quite an impact!”
Free Thought’s latest project is creating a functional library for the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center. Thanks to a grant from Washington University and help from Sarah Buchanan, a Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar, the organization is painting the bare-bones space and will also establish a coding system so kids can check out books.
“We are also trying to create a comfortable space where they can read and find some peace,” says Hake.
Both Hake and Boullear have worked as criminal defense investigators, which makes them sympathetic to the incarcerated.
Emily Boullear (left) and Christina Hake get ready to paint the library at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention center.
“One thing we learned is that it does not take a lot to convict someone, and a major reason people go to jail is because they cannot afford proper representation,” Boullear says. “Unfortunately this is how the system works, and why we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. One person may see the bad person — the person that deserves to be in [jail] — but we’ve seen the evidence that put them there. A good 50 percent of the time I am not even sure if that client was guilty.”
Hake agrees and explains that the program is about giving those jailed hope for the future. “Every part of being a human is work and progress. We hope by providing books we provide opportunity, even if it just brings someone peace, or a method of escape.”
They’re doing the work with scant resources. “We have no money,” Hake says bluntly. The group is always looking for donations, including book donations, but so far have been funding much of Free Thought out of pocket. They do it because they believe in the power of reading.
“We are hoping to … offer people who maybe never had adequate resources available in their life an option for hope and stability,” Boullear says. “Books can provide inspiration, education, and a chance for emotional, mental and even physical freedom.”