By Rachel Crumpler
Nearly every Saturday, a small group of volunteers gather in Durham. They walk up the stairs to a library in a donated space on private property and get to work.
There are hundreds of books on shelves and in bins in that library. There’s an order to it all. A fantasy section here. An urban fiction section there. Dozens of coloring books in a cardboard box.
A pile of letters awaits the volunteers. They read the messages — all requests for free books. Most are generic, noting preferred genres.
Then it’s up to the volunteers to use their best judgment to scan the stock of books and pick titles for each individual. After selecting books for each person, volunteers write a short, hand-written note and wrap the package in paper from a brown paper bag for mailing.
Last Saturday, a handful of volunteers put together 24 packages totaling 72 books in two hours.
The destination? Women in North Carolina’s prisons and jails.
The NC Women’s Prison Book Project has sent books to various detention facilities across the state for the past 10 years. For those involved, it’s an act of direct service that can help break the isolation that prison and jail creates for incarcerated individuals.
“The sense that I get is that it provides a much needed resource, which is intellectual stimulation and escape,” said Jennifer Carroll, who’s been involved with the project since 2018. “It also provides a sense of connection with the outside that is unique from whatever ongoing relationships they have with friends and family that they keep up with.”
The NC Women’s Prison Book Project has a narrow focus on sending books to incarcerated women. That was intentional when, about 10 years ago, the group spun off from the Prison Books Collective, a North Carolina-based group founded in 2006 that sends free books primarily to men incarcerated in North Carolina and Alabama.
Recognizing that women are often an overlooked population when thinking about incarceration in the United States, the group wanted to hone in on serving this smaller group to develop relationships with those on the inside. They also wanted to be more responsive to the specific kinds of reading material most desired and useful to women in prison and jail.
In the last four decades, the number of women incarcerated in the United States has skyrocketed. Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
In North Carolina, the number of women in jails increased 18-fold from 1970 to 2015, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. There was also a fivefold increase in the number of women in prison from 1978 to 2017. Together, more than 4,000 women are housed in the state’s prisons and jails out of a total incarcerated population of around 55,000.
The NC Women’s Prison Book Project is reaching a small portion of them.
“I hope that the books we provide help them get through the time because they’re human beings,” said Alia Granger, who’s volunteered for several years. “Everybody deserves to have stimulation.”
How does this work?
Each week the NC Women’s Prison Book Project mails 20 to 50 packages of books across North Carolina with postage costing about $100.
Volunteers send packages only in response to request letters they receive. NC Women’s Prison Book Project is not a subscription-like service in which the group will automatically send books monthly. Instead, an incarcerated person must write every time they want more to read.
Individuals can receive up to one package containing three paperback books per month. Every reader has their own index card in the group’s alphabetized filing system so volunteers can track what type of books each person loves and the titles sent previously.
Liz Ault, who has helped coordinate the book project since 2018, said people have written to the group through their cancer diagnoses, pregnancies and challenges with recovery from mental health issues or substances.
The group strives to send book genres and particular authors that are requested as they are available.
“It affords a certain amount of agency or control that they have the capacity to reach out and hail a particular organization and have like a tangible result of that reaching out,” Carroll said. “That’s in part a way to feel effective in the world or like someone who can interact with the world, as opposed to being completely walled off from society.”
NC Women’s Prison Book Project never asks for the books to be returned, and often the impact of the book goes beyond the initial recipient. Incarcerated folks often share among their peers and even donate the books to their jail or prison libraries.
Powered by community support
The NC Women’s Prison Book Project’s library stays stocked based on used books and financial donations.
While the bookshelves appear fairly well-stocked, Ault said the most commonly requested genres and authors are sparse. That’s why the group has online wishlists with The Regulator Bookshop in Durham and Bookshop.org with the most popular reading materials the group always needs. Financial donations also allow volunteers to scour sales for cheap used books of interest to the women in jails and prisons.
Common book requests include authors like Colleen Hoover, Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson as well as crochet, puzzle and coloring books.
The group has also written to a few publishers who have provided copies of books.
When there are specific requests, such as for a certain version of the Bible, volunteers will do their best to fulfill the request, though it is not always possible.
Carroll said the community support for the project is strong. That’s what has kept the group — at first called Durham Prison Books before being renamed to NC Women’s Prison Book Project — operating continuously over the past decade. There’s been a consistent cycle of donors and invested volunteers who are committed to the mission of acknowledging the humanity of incarcerated people via the sending of books.
And the volunteers get reassurance that it’s paying off in the notes of gratitude they receive regularly from incarcerated folks.
“You have helped many of us to break away from all these worries and trials with your books,” wrote one incarcerated individual. “I read the books you send me and it helps me to get out of these gates and walls.”