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Alabama bookstore works to break barriers for people in prison

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Thursday, November 30, 2023   

An Alabama bookstore is working to make sure people in prison have access to books.

The Burdock Book Collective in Birmingham is on a mission to bridge connections and shatter stereotypes within the prison system.

Teaming up with the Alabama Books to Prison Project, they are providing books and pen pals to help people combat the isolation of prison life and expand their access to educational resources.

For collective co-founder Katie Willis - who is also a volunteer with the project - the act of sending books fosters connections and helps bring humanity to people serving time.

"Also the relationships that are built by sending books to people - and feeling cared for, feeling connected to somebody else," said Willis. "Because a lot of the folks that we are in contact with, they have no one else in the world. And so, it's been really meaningful for them in that way."

Since joining the books to prison program, she said the bookstore has delivered 400 books to about 200 recipients in recent years. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, about 43,000 people are incarcerated in Alabama.

Meagan Lyle, also a co-founder of collective and a volunteer with the project, explains that getting the books isn't always a straightforward process.

Someone at the prison - perhaps the warden or another designated person - determines which titles are allowed, so restrictions vary depending on the facility.

Lyle said the lack of clear-cut rules can make it difficult for those behind bars to get some of the reading material they seek.

"Sometimes, prisons have just been completely rejecting books from us," said Lyle. "So, there are a few prisons - including Tutwiler and the Montgomery Women's Facility - that haven't accepted books. And they cite the reasons are, like, contraband."

Willis and Lyle said they're working to forge connections with jails and prisons statewide to grow their efforts.

And they firmly believe the simple gesture of providing reading materials can bring about change, even in a system plagued by low parole rates and overcrowding.

Lyle said she hopes this work can also serve as a way to initiate discussions on restorative justice.

"I think you can come to this project thinking, 'Oh yeah, anybody deserves a book,'" said Lyle. "But you may not totally recognize the humanity in people that are incarcerated until you start building relationships with them. I hope that is something that's coming out of this, for folks on the outside."

According to the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, there can be significant negative economic and social impacts when incarcerated people don't have access to education, that can affect them after their release.




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