Meet the social worker flooding the Denver jail with books during the pandemic

After the Colorado Freedom Fund solicited book donations on Twitter, April O’Dell had 18 packages waiting at the post office

April O'Dell, a clinical social worker who works at Denver's city jail, opens packages of donated books outside her home on Jan. 31, 2020. O'Dell collects books, journals and colored pencils to distribute to people inside the jail to help keep them occupied while they are incarcerated. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Every day when April O’Dell goes to work at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center — Denver’s city jail — she lugs in as many books as she can carry.

“I think it really helps to manage folks’ anxiety here, especially now,” said O’Dell, who is a clinical social worker for Denver Health, which is contracted to provide behavioral health services for inmates at the jail.

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O’Dell solicits donations from anyone she can find: family, friends, neighbors — even strangers on the internet. The back of her car is overflowing with donated books, National Geographic magazines and journals. She also collects colored pencils, artwork and puzzles to help keep people occupied while they are incarcerated at the jail.

The jail has had an active coronavirus outbreak since April 30, according to state data, and is currently the site of the sixth largest outbreak in the state. As of Feb. 10, 1,071 inmates and 83 staff members had contracted COVID-19 at the facility throughout the pandemic.

April O’Dell unpacks a box full of donated books and National Geographic magazines in her driveway on Jan. 31, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

To help limit the spread of the virus, new inmates entering the facility are placed in separate housing and are tested and monitored by Denver Health staff, according to Daria Serna, a spokeswoman for the Denver Sheriff Department. Those who test positive are isolated for 10 days and then screened again. As of Feb. 11, nine people within the jail were positive for COVID-19, according to Serna.

Have books you’d like to donate?

  • O’Dell has curated an Amazon wishlist for books that have been requested by inmates at the Denver jail. The donated books have to be paperbacks.
  • Book donations or coloring pencils can be mailed to the Colorado Freedom Fund: PO Box 6271, Denver, CO 80206 
  • Little Read Books, a free book store in Denver at 2260 California St., accepts donations on Saturdays and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Though the jail has managed to keep all behavioral health programs going throughout the pandemic, most educational or community programs that rely on volunteers have been halted to limit the number of people going in and out of the facility. The decrease in programming means inmates are left with less to occupy their minds and limited connection to the outside world. 

“I feel like, in addition to the lack of programming here that has stopped because of the pandemic, the trial courts are going on hold for so long and a lot of people are just in delays,” O’Dell said. “They are being mis-trialed and delayed and delayed and delayed. So that’s just causing people to be more anxious and sitting for longer periods of time.” 

Her book endeavors are only a small part of her full-time job. As a clinical social worker, she meets with inmates daily to answer questions, make sure they have their medications and know how to access mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

Elisabeth Epps, founder of the Colorado Freedom Fund, visited the Denver jail on Aug. 4, 2020, to bail out three men. (John Herrick for Colorado Newsline)

She also helps people apply for assistance from the Colorado Freedom Fund, a community organization that pays bail for people who can’t afford it. As part of that role, O’Dell also coordinates places for people to stay who might not have anywhere else to go once they are released.

When the Colorado Freedom Fund sent O’Dell a gift card to thank her for her work, O’Dell swiftly purchased more books for her inmates. In response, CFF put out a call on Twitter for book donations. That week, she had 18 packages waiting for her at the post office. The following week it was 30.

“The post office is starting to get concerned about my spending,” O’Dell joked, as she stood in her driveway while her husband used a table saw to cut colored pencils in half so she could bring them into the jail.

April O’Dell’s husband uses a table saw to cut colored pencils in half on Jan. 31, 2020, so they are able to be distributed in the jail. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Most of the books O’Dell provides go to inmates who are on 23-hour-a-day lockdown, either because they have the coronavirus or because of disciplinary reasons. 

O’Dell said there hasn’t been a significant increase in mental health crises at the jail like other facilities have seen due to the pandemic. She partially attributes this to the fact that behavioral health specialists have been able to stay physically present throughout the pandemic.

“If I go into an open pod to see somebody, I might have 10 people lining up to answer quick questions,” O’Dell said. “So, I think that that helps to decrease some of that crisis feeling. If folks know that we are there, that there is somebody that they can call to talk to and have their questions answered, I think that helps a lot.”

Editors note: This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2020 to remove two personal details about April O’Dell at the request of the Denver Sheriff Department, citing security concerns.

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