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How the Prison Books Collective Is Helping Women’s Prisons in NC

Everyone deserves access to books.

This is a phrase that resonates with the Prison Books Collective, a nonprofit organization that provides books to incarcerated women in North Carolina prison systems. According to recent statistics, more than 230,000 women and girls are currently incarcerated in the United States with the brunt of women being held in jail rather than prison. Regardless, many individuals in the prison system lack easy access to reading materials. When the internet and other means of socialization and entertainment are not readily available, it’s thanks to books that incarcerated individuals are able to learn, grow, and pass the time.

In 2006, the Prison Books Collective rose out of the ashes of an old bookstore and community center in Carrboro, NC. In collaboration with another nonprofit, N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project, these two organizations provide much-needed books to incarcerated individuals in North Carolina and Alabama each week. The N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project also serves as a community hub for local groups.

These efforts are often in response to letters received directly from incarcerated women. A recent excerpt from one letter, as reported in the Daily Tar Heel simply states, “Books. I want them. I need them.”

While bail bond agencies pledge money to get people out of jail, there are still a rising number of women occupying prisons and jails across the country. In fact, the number of incarcerated women has risen by 700% in the last 40 years.

“There’s more women going to prison than ever before, and so there’s a greater demand because of that,” explains N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project volunteer Meghan McDowell. “There’s an intimacy with the project of writing letters and pulling books from the shelves and putting them together in a package. 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.”

It’s thanks to these nonprofits that incarcerated persons are able to access these books. They aren’t often at the top of the to-do list for state-run and operated prisons. After all, these institutions are more concerned about the daily operations of the prison system, including treating the one billion colds Americans suffer from each year. It’s thanks to non-profit organizations like the Prison Books Collective that humanity is brought back into these institutions.

Each week, a collection of volunteers at both organizations works together to craft between 35 and 75 packages of books. These books are then shipped to prisons and jails throughout North Carolina and Alabama. The organizations get requests for a multitude of books that are packaged and shipped via trucking networks. It’s no wonder the trucking industry is expected to be worth more than $22 billion in 2024.

The book requests range from mysteries to religion to dictionaries to poetry and history. Unfortunately, not all books can make it into the various prison systems because of strict guidelines. Books with hardcovers, for example, are often turned away. The content of a book can also cause a book to be rejected. If a book is unnecessarily rejected in the eyes of the nonprofit, volunteers will follow up to ensure it wasn’t for an arbitrary reason.

In addition to providing books to incarcerated women, the Prison Books Collective also publishes zines highlighting writing from incarcerated women on a semi-regular basis.

Leigh Lassiter, a worker for the Prison Books Collective, knows how important it is to get books to incarcerated women.

“We know from the letters we get every week that this is often a life-changing lifeline to the outside,” they said in a recent interview with the Daily Tar Heel.

If you’re interested in donating to this cause, both organizations are accepting book donations and monetary donations.

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