A life-changing moment for Shelby Parsons, president and co-founder of Big House Books of Mississippi, came four years ago when she hosted an educational puppet show about the prison-industrial complex. It was presented by a group from North Carolina, and organizers asked if any attendees were interested in helping them address the need for a Books-to-Prisoners program in Mississippi. She jumped at the chance to be involved.
“Big House Books sends books, by request, to prisoners in Mississippi,” Shelby said. “We believe that the punitive criminal justice system is ineffective and that education and rehabilitation should be the central principle in a community’s response to crime. By providing books to those who are incarcerated, we provide them with options to educate and empower themselves.” This sentiment dovetails with comments from a prison librarian named Andrew in an essay on www.publiclibrariesonline.org: “The mission of a prison library is to provide educational and recreational resources to inmates. This can take the form of books, newspapers, magazines, movies and library programming. The hope is that this will aid in the rehabilitation process and, most importantly, provide a means of escape and distraction so that inmates stay out of trouble. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop in prison, and having a book in them is much better than a weapon.”
Shelby isn’t working with a limited budget – she’s workingwith no budget at all. The books that are requested by inmates span a variety of genres: black-authored books, dictionaries, law dictionaries, self-help legal guides, large-print books, books about dreams, astrology books, composition books, adult col- oring books and those in foreign languages.
While books in the aforementioned categories are always welcome because of the requests for them, Shelby said that her main need is financial contributions to pay the shipping costs. Sending packages of three books at a time to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County and other Mississippi prisons typically costs around five dollars. “We are volunteer only and send all books by mail,” Shelby said. “Since we have no staff, we have no office hours. Books must be pa- perback. We suggest looking on our website and clicking on the volunteer link to see when our next volunteer day is, and bringing them at that time.”
“Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for a prison librarian is money,” Andrew said in his www.publiclibrariesonline.org essay. “Most of the time, the prison library is low on the list of the prison’s priorities and is overlooked. Book donations are a prison library’s lifeblood. Networking with local bookstores is a great way for a prison library to obtain books and replace out- of-date material clogging the shelves. When I received book donations, it was like Christmas morning in the library. The in- mates appreciated my efforts at trying to provide new material, and the prison administration appreciated donations because it saved money. Keeping the collection looking full improves the image of the library for inmates and makes it inviting.”
The donations are sincerely appreciated by the inmates. A note from an inmate named Daniel on the Big House Books website includes this excerpt: “I would like to request some books. We are allowed three at a time. I would really like any ‘Daniel X’ books by James Patterson. If not, then I like fantasy. I don’t read anything else. Thanks so much for all your help . . . may God bless you.”
Visit Big House Books of Mississippi at www.bighousebooksms.org and learn more about providing requested books to inmates around the state.