Book 'em: Reading between the bars

Malcolm X said it was in prison that he realized “reading had changed forever the course of my life… the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive."
Whether you consider Malcolm X an ideal poster-boy for civil rights and societal benevolence, if you’re reading this column you probably agree that promoting literacy in prison is in everyone’s best interest.
The government consistently spends more money on prisons than on higher education. So it’s no surprise that the libraries of most correctional facilities are poorly endowed. To rectify the supply shortage, grass-roots organizations have sprung up from Seattle to Asheville, their ideologies reflected in a range of website logos. You can pick from “The Pampered Prisoner” service specializing in incarcerated pen-pals, or the Maoist Inmate Movement’s “Serve the People” program.
And now, you can get involved locally.
John Chapman is spearheading the Charlottesville Prison Books Project, confident that by “tapping into the progressiveness and the glut of books here,” he can help bring an inmate solace, edification, diversion, or maybe God.
The number of people in American prisons has surpassed two million, creating what Chapman calls “a near insatiable appetite for books.” The most commonly requested items from inmates, according Philadelphia-based Books Through Bars, are self-help and reference materials. Those include dictionaries, GED instruction, Yoga and martial arts manuals, and books on “queer studies.” Books on Paganism made the most-wanted list; bomb-building guides did not.
Chapman, who worked for a books-for-prisoners project in Austin, plans to hold book drives and establish discard agreements with libraries and used bookstores. He would like to focus on the 30,000 Virginia state inmates, but says he needs to get approval from wardens before sending books in-state. Texas, on the other hand, with its huge prison population, has already normalized book-donation policies, and prisoners are well versed, as it were, in the drill.
“First come, first serve will probably have to be our policy,” concludes Chapman.
The CPBP will need volunteers for all sorts of tasks, from replying to inmate requests to boxing donations. Think about it, Charlottesville– Camus or Jerry Springer?

The Charlottesville Prison Books Project holds its first informational meeting on Wednesday, December 4, at 7:30pm in the meeting room of the Gordon Avenue Library. 1500 Gordon Ave. For more information leave a message at 1-877-810-1573 or