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Every Tuesday afternoon in a busy packing room on Millsaps Avenue, a flurry of volunteers can be found ferreting out, stamping and packaging stacks of softcover books for trips to prison cells across the state.
The operation, Big House Books, is a nonprofit that aims to get books into the hands of the more than 31,000 incarcerated people in Mississippi’s state prisons.
Shelby Parsons said the project all began with a little bit of guilt.
On the last day of 2014, Parsons said she hosted a traveling group from North Carolina that uses a shadow puppet show to teach people about the prison industrial complex’s history of slavery and police brutality.
At the end of the show, Parsons said the performer began talking about the work they were doing through their books-to-prison program. Back in North Carolina, they put out a call to inmates for letters that mentioned books they wanted to read while serving their sentence. They would put together a package of books for an inmate and mail it directly to that inmate.
That’s when the traveling group brought out a box of more than six hundred such letters from people in Mississippi’s prison system. Laying the box of letters on the ground, the group asked the crowd if anyone was going to do anything to support their own state’s prison population.
Parsons said that’s when she decided that she wanted to do something about it.
It took another year for Parsons to get a group together. But even then, things were pretty rough. For each request, they would cobble together some books, stuff them them in a grocery bag, wrap them with yards of tape and scrawl the shipping address on the bag in black Sharpie ink.
“We didn’t have our books all organized or anything like that,” Parsons said. “We were renting a closet. So we had the books all stacked on the floor and tried to pick out the request from there and when we were done we would have to pack our books up again and put them in the closet. We weren’t able to have them in a place that was easy to find. It was a lot of extra work.”
And to make matters worse, it wasn’t clear what kinds of books could make it into the prisons.
“I remember calling prisons to ask them to see what their mailing specifications are,” said Holly Smith, Big House Books’ volunteer accountant.
“What can be sent? What can’t be sent? Does it have to be a certain label? Or can we just write on it?” Smith recalled. “There are policy changes from prison to prison, and they can change from warden to warden. What specifications may have worked a year ago, may not work any longer.”
In the prison mail room, employees of the Mississippi Department of Corrections search all packages. MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher explained the reasons why a package of books might be returned to the sender.
Inmates are not allowed to receive sexually explicit material or publications containing pictures “depicting nudity or some types of sexual acts.” MDOC doesn’t have a banned book list or anything comparable, Fisher said. Instead, mail room employees at the prisons are charged with interpreting whether or not a particular magazine or novel is too explicit for the prison.
Stencil coloring books have also been prohibited because of their perceived use in unauthorized tattooing, she said.
Inmates are also only allowed to have up to five books in their possession at any given time. Fisher, in response to an email, said there is no uniform way of keeping up with how many books inmates have.
“There are various ways to know when an inmate exceeds his allowable items, including through inspections, shakedowns, etc.,” Fisher wrote. This makes things difficult because Big House Books isn’t able to check if an inmate already has five books in their possession when preparing to mail another book.
That said, Fisher did explain that “one-on-one interactions regarding the sharing or trading of books” is not policed in the prisons. Therefore inmates expecting a package from Big House Books, could pass out the books they already read to other inmates.
Parsons said she hopes that the books they are sending in will be circulated. In each book they send in, the softcover is stamped with Big House Books’ logo and an address people can use to mail in new requests for books.
MDOC does offer other ways for inmates to get reading material.
“Please know that if the inmate cannot receive a book directly because he or she has exceeded his/her allowable allotment, he can always go to the library or have the book sent to the library,” Fisher wrote in an email.
Tim Outlaw, warden of Marshall County Correctional Facility, said that his prison’s library has more than 12,000 books.
“Offenders have access to the library seven days a week,” Outlaw said. “Access to the library is never denied for disciplinary reasons. …We believe giving offenders access to reading materials including books is a positive thing. It helps them further their education, keeps them occupied with a worthwhile activity, and prepares them to be successful after they’re released.”
When asked about Big House Books, Outlaw said that Marshall County Correctional Facility was looking into the possibility of partnering with Big House Books. Though Parsons said she has never heard anything from the prison, that word from Outlaw prompted her to say, “Maybe I should call him.”
Over the course of the last two years, Parsons said that things have been getting better. Packing for instance is a much more smooth operation. They print the postage they need and package books in a larger, permanent space to work in. They even found a database that helps keep requests organized.
“And it’s not just novels,” Parsons said. “We get requests for composition books and dictionaries and Spanish-to-English dictionaries. People are in there and are trying to work on their writing or trying to work on themselves. But they may not have the ability to do so without a books-to-prison program.”
Last week, the McCain Library hosted a Parchman exhibit, “Justice in the Mississippi State Penitentiary: Past Reflections, Present Challenges and Future Directions.” There Parsons said she got an audience with the entire senior staff of the Department of Corrections.
“So we were able to talk to them about why we were having these problems, and what can we do. They were very supportive,” Parsons said.
In addition, the group is trying to form relationships with people outside the department in hopes of widening their network.
“Starting to make those connections, having them meet us and be like, ‘Oh you just genuinely want to get books in. You don’t know these people?’ has been good,” Parsons said. “We just didn’t realize we could go that route.”
Over time they’ve gotten letters from avid readers behind bars. Along with enough artwork to fill their own books, prisoners would write to thank the organization and get in their next book order.
“Howdy Boys + Girls at Books to Prisoners,” reads the blue ink of one such letter. “Hope and pray your all doing great. I’m doing fine, Praise God! … I (am) writing to ask for some suspense, mystery (books). Same kind you’ve been sending. I enjoyed them all afterwards I share with (the) whole prison (and) give to (the) library … Thank you all, God Bless from your friend.”
With an estimated 300 percent increase in the prison population since 1983 in the United States, there are plenty of people behind bars who stand to benefit from this expanded access to reading materials.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics study of offending patterns in thirty states between 2005 and 2010, three-quarters of those released were arrested again in five years. A third of all those were arrested within the first six months after release.
A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that inmates who received some education while imprisoned “are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.” For every dollar put towards inmate education programs, incarceration costs were reduced by $4 to $5, the report said.
“They don’t have much but the one thing they do have is time and patience to learn something,” Parson said, “They’re just waiting all day. They have the ability to learn so much.”
After partnering with the Mississippi Library Commission, Big House Books produced a promotional video highlighting their work.