Since the spring of 2006, the Prison Books Collective has worked to give a voice to prisoners in the U.S. prison system and to fight some of the struggles that inmates face every day.
The Collective, located at 621 Hillsborough Rd. in Carrboro, is an anti-prison group that sends hundreds of books to prisoners in the South every month. It also publishes prisoners’ writing and art, and works to raise awareness about the problems with the U.S. prison system.
“We are an abolitionist organization, so we believe in the abolition of prisons,” said Suzi Pietroluongo, who has worked with the Prison Books Collective since the fall of 2014. “But we also believe in supporting people who are the most affected by that system as much as we can.”
Volunteers meet on Sundays at 1 p.m. to package and distribute books and political material throughout North Carolina and Alabama. The Collective welcomes new volunteers on workdays and also accepts donations in the form of packaging materials, books or money to help fulfill prisoners’ book requests.
“I started volunteering in September or October of this year,” Pietroluongo said during one of the workdays. “I just came to a workday like this one and I started filling packages. We get a letter like this one right here and then we find books and zines that they either ask for directly or that we think they might be interested in, and then we package them up and send them to [the prisoners].”
Pietroluongo said that some of the books in highest demand are legal materials, dictionaries, science fiction books and thrillers.
“Something that is really interesting about our organization is we’ll see people asking for things like Stephen King novels, and then they’ll write back and start asking for things on Black Panthers. So it’s nice to see political transformations while people are in prison,” she said.
The Collective has faced a few setbacks while interacting with prisons. Hardback books are often not allowed in prisons, and sometimes certain books are banned.
Still, the Collective does what it can to get prisoners the books they ask for. It has also taken on other projects since its formation, including a prison abolitionist reading group, a zine catalog, which are small booklets on contemporary political subjects, and a publication featuring collections of prisoners’ art and writing.
The publications of prisoners’ work, known as “Words of Fire,” aims to help people in prison share ideas with each other. When published, copies of “Words of Fire” are sent in with every package and are sent in by request after that. There have been eight editions since the project began in 2007.
Why send books to prisoners?
Mike Cohen, who has worked for the Prison Books Collective for almost eight years, said that he became involved because he sees prisons as “the cutting edge of repression.”
“I think a lot of people when they look at society going totalitarian or authoritarian, they look for changes in everyday life,” Cohen said, “but prison is an interesting model where instead of changing the conditions for non-exceptional people, it grows the population of exceptional people.”
By exceptional people, Cohen means those involved in the legal system, whether in prison or on parole or probation, who lack certain rights granted to average citizens.
“2.3 million adults are in prison now, so for all of those people, our society is fully authoritarian; there’s no illusion of rights at all,” he said. “And then you have all of these other shades of gray like parole and probation. I think that’s why I see prisons as really important to challenge in our society.”
Cohen said that by sending literature to prisoners, the Collective is helping to make prison less isolating, and also allowing people in prison to better educate themselves.
“One of [prison’s] purposes is to be unseen and invisible, which given how large it is, it’s amazing how invisible it is,” he said. “I think obviously preventing people from educating themselves is one of its very damaging and intentional effects – reproducing and maintaining people’s status in society. I think sending books in undermines both of those.”
Indeed, studies have shown a link between time behind bars and difficulties coping outside of prison. A study by psychology professor Craig W. Haney at the University of California at Santa Cruz showed that those difficulties include social withdrawal and isolation, dependence on institutional structure and contingencies and a diminished sense of self-worth.
The study found that the stigma around prisons and the literal and psychological isolation of prison from surrounding communities results in weakened ties between prisoners and their loved ones outside of prison.
It also stated, “In the first decade of the 21st century, more people have been subjected to the pains of imprisonment, for longer periods of time, under conditions that threaten greater psychological distress and potential long-term dysfunction, and they will be returned to communities that have already been disadvantaged by a lack of social services and resources.”
Because of this, many groups like the Prison Books Collective have started up in recent years.
“We’re no longer sending things to Mississippi because they’re actually starting their own books-to-prisons group,” Pietroluongo said. “It’s actually just getting off the ground, so that’s really exciting. So we’re being supportive of them, but we’re only serving North Carolina and Alabama currently.”
However, not all organizations have the same goal. Not all groups are anti-prison, and some have religious or other ties.
“I think our particular message is really different than a lot of Christian charities,” Cohen said. “Christian charities often have this sort of Johnny Cash approach where it’s like, ‘you’ve done wrong but you’re still a person and you can get better and pay your debt to society.’ And our perspective is ‘you’re in prison because you’re poor.’ It doesn’t mean you didn’t do an awful thing, but rich people do awful things all the time and often they’re rewarded for it … poor-people crime is what will land you in prison.”
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