“Books. I want them. I need them.”
This excerpt from a letter, written by an incarcerated person in North Carolina, is one of many sent to Prison Books Collective and the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project, two Durham nonprofits that answer book requests each week from incarcerated individuals in North Carolina.
On weekly workdays, volunteers fulfill requests from their supply of donated and purchased books, answer letters and deliver packages to the post office to send back to the prisons. Each week, Prison Books Collective, which also sends books to prisons in Alabama, mails about 20 to 50 packages and the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project mails between 15 and 25.
Prison Books Collective was born out of a now-closed bookstore and community center in Carrboro called Internationalist Books. Staff and frequent visitors formed Prison Books Collective in 2006, which split again into the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project in 2013. Both organizations now share a space in Durham.
Meghan McDowell, who has volunteered with the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project since it began, said the organization was formed partly because of rising incarceration rates in women’s facilities. In the past 40 years, they have increased by over 700 percent.
“There’s more women going to prison than ever before, and so there’s a greater demand because of that,” McDowell said.
Leigh Lassiter, who has worked with Prison Books Collective since 2018, said they got involved because of their interest in criminal justice reform. They believe the U.S. uses prisons to warehouse, and then forget, a substantial amount of the population.
They said sending books to incarcerated individuals felt like bringing back humanity to people the public has forgotten.
McDowell said they think of their work as a direct-aid project in the midst of a larger movement for criminal justice reform and decarceration. They hope the organizations help change the way their volunteers and community think about the prison system.
“There’s an intimacy with the project of writing letters and pulling books from the shelves and putting them together in a package,” McDowell said. “Any act of relationship-building, I think, is a step to opening people’s minds to rethinking assumptions they might make about people who are inside.”
Lawrence Chadbourne, who has been volunteering with PBC since 2014, said they get requests for all kinds of books, including Westerns, business guides, mysteries, how-to books, dictionaries, romance and history.
“Sometimes it’s very specific or strange requests, which are surprising," Chadbourne said. "People are interested in different things like Wicca and Norse mythology, so we try to have some of that available.”
Besides books, PBC distributes small pamphlets called "zines" across the nation. It also publishes a semi-regular collection, "Words of Fire," which includes art, poetry, short stories and essays by incarcerated people.
Not all of the books the organizations send make it into prisons. Many prisons have strict policies about what books are not allowed inside, including books with hard covers, markings or highlights, nudity or gang-related symbols.
“We are constantly faced with denials based on very arbitrary reasons,” Lassiter said.
When the organizations think a book has been rejected unfairly, they often follow up with the prisons to convince them otherwise.
“We know from the letters we get every week that this is often a life-changing lifeline to the outside, and that means that if someone says, ‘We’re not delivering this to someone,’ we’re going to ask why,” Lassiter said.
Since the pandemic began, only a small group of consistent volunteers can meet in the workspace to answer requests, but they are looking forward to reopening their space to community members.
"Considering what’s going on I think we’re doing fairly well," Chadbourne said. "They’re doing a good job and we’re getting donations and we’re just plugging away, and I hope we can continue doing that."