Nothing says holidays like gift giving. But there are numerous barriers to giving and receiving gifts for people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.

Enter the Triad Abolition Project and the Prison Books Collective, whose organizers have collaborated to host a holiday book drive for people who are incarcerated throughout North Carolina.

Books are vital to the wellbeing of many people in the prison system. In 2015, Brookings found that higher rates of literacy directly led to a sharp drop in recidivism rates. Studies have also found that people who are incarcerated use books as a way to avoid feelings of hopelessness or to educate themselves.

It is often difficult for people living in prisons to access reading materials. The Equal Justice Initiative reports that prisons will discard books deemed too provocative or radical, and multiple sources site that books with hard covers are considered dangerous, as they could be used to smuggle contraband.

Prisons are more likely, however, to accept books from organizations like the PBC that are familiar with the rules, recognized by the Department of Public Safety and have a reputation in the community.

“That’s one of the reasons we decided to partner with someone doing the work,” said Katie Murawski, part of TAP’s communication, research and direct-action committee.

“The books collective, they know what they need to do to get the books to our siblings there,” she continued. “The original idea was to host a book drive for the detention center downtown, but they’re very, very strict. It’s a jail, so some of these people haven’t even gone through their trial yet. It’s mind-boggling that they would make it so hard for people that are basically being held for ransom to get books.”

forsyth county jail
Forsyth County Jail

In addition to their monthly letter-writing campaigns, the people at TAP wanted to do something more personal. As the group has been doing fewer marches in this stage of the pandemic, Murawski and her team came up with an event to support people who are incarcerated this time of year.

“They’re isolated for the holidays,” she said. “They’re locked in cages. Even with mail, there’s a big controversy surrounding mail lately, so they’re being really strict on that. We wanted to give them contact with the outside world in a way that keeps them entertained and busy.”

Three local bookstores are participating in the drive as drop-off locations, including Scuppernong Books in Greensboro as well as Coffee Park Airstream and Bookmarks in Winston-Salem. Scuppernong has done book drives in the past, but this is the first they have taken part in for people in jail.

“It’s also nice to have an organization that knows all the hoops you have to jump through,” said Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Scuppernong. “There are a lot of restrictions. There are books that are banned in the North Carolina prison system, and there’s a list of them on their website.

“It’s also very difficult for individuals to send books to people who are incarcerated,” he said. “You can’t buy a book and mail it. We have to mail it for you.”

Acceptable book genres include African-American and Native-American nonfiction, business and nonprofit guides, dictionaries and activity books like sudoku or coloring books, among others. Sometimes PBC gets specific requests, but mostly they make do with what they have.

“It is a big challenge for people who want to send something to a family member or someone they know, so we’re usually contacted directly from inmates with individual request letters, some really specific and some more general,” said Ivy Shelton, a PBC volunteer who is working on the book drive. “Sometimes we get letters saying, you know, ‘My son’s incarcerated and can you send him something?’”

PBC accepts book drive donations year round, but generally sends one or two books at a time due to prison guidelines. Postage tends to be their biggest cost, so monetary donations are just as welcome as books.

“It goes back to our main mission, that is to provide resources to help people during imprisonment and to help prepare people transitioning back into society,” Shelton said. “This way, we’re supporting incarcerated people who deserve support and resources.”

The book drive runs through January 2022. Donors can give new or lightly used books at Scuppernong Books, Coffee Park Airstream or Bookmarks. Check out PBC’s wishlist at bit.ly/PBCWishlist or contribute monetary donations online at bit.ly/TAPBOOKDRIVE

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