#RuthInAmerica: Books Through Bars

Beena and volunteer

Beena Ahmad [left], Books Thru Bars volunteer and former Wits Justice Project staff member.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

MY FRIEND and New York attorney Beena Ahmad – who worked for nearly a year with the Wits Justice Project – had a quirky habit. In her neighborhood in Brooklyn she picked up books that people left out on the street with great enthusiasm (an aside: you can furnish your entire house with the stuff people discard; from baby shoes, to antique cupboards, to electronics). Sometimes I would share her joy, like when she picked up a battered copy of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, placed on a garden wall. At other times though, ‘Form Your Own Limited Liability Company’, for example, didn’t seem quite as riveting a read.

But when I entered the basement of the bookstore Free Bird, where Books Through Bars New York hosts one of their weekly book packing volunteer groups, I got it.  About 10 people were seated around a table or browsed the shelves crammed pell-mell with books.

Incarcerated people write to the organisation, requesting books they want to read. The volunteers read their letters and go through the book collection to see if they can find any matches and mail the books to the inmates.

Annie Soga, a 26-year-old volunteer who describes herself as a ‘library school dropout’ and her boyfriend Tim Nicholas run fanzines and are regular volunteers for Books Through Bars. “Dictionaries are most popular,” she says. According to this website “more than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.” If prisoners learn to read and write their chances of ending up back in prison drastically drop, and it also allows them to understand their rights.

Annie Soga [left] and other Books Through Bars volunteers sorting through mail. 

Exonoree Gregory Bright, who I interviewed in New Orleans this weekend, knows this. He went from being illiterate, to representing himself before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated for a murder he never committed and for which he spent 27 years in Angola prison. I will return to his story in blogs and articles to come. Gregory told me he had to drop out of school at the age of 11 to take care of his dying step-father. After his arrest and conviction to life without parole, he managed to teach himself a few words, starting with a religious magazine he found in his cell. The only written words he could recognize were those in the prayer ‘Our Father’, which his step-father had taught him to read. These words were his starting point. In Angola, lifers were not allowed to participate in any programmes, as the prison did not consider literacy skills relevant. Life without parole means you will die in prison, so why bother, seems to have been the reasoning. Gregory persisted though and taught himself to read and write, with the help of dictionaries. When he was proficient enough to read legal texts, it became his sole activity. “It didn’t make sense to waste time on anything else than proving my innocence. My friends would find me asleep in the morning, my head resting on law books.”

The power of books shines through in the thank you notes uploaded to the Books Through Bars website. One person writes that he is grateful for the books on photography that the project sent him, “the books (…) have provided great inspiration for artwork that I have completed for other inmates and staff at this facility.” Another man writes: “I would like to thank you for the books you sent me last month. I’m going to be executed May 30th but I’d like you to know that those books will give me much pleasure in the days remaining to me.”

Given the grim reality of life behind bars, it comes as no surprise that sci-fi and fantasy are popular requests, as are stories and pictures about family life; a surrogate for the loved ones that are missed.

Some books are not allowed though. Many prisons ban hardback copies and some ban books with maps and DIY books. In Alabama, The Equal Justice Initiative sued the Alabama Department of Corrections over its ban of the book ‘Slavery by Another Name’, which documents the abhorrent practice of ‘convict leasing: “African Americans in Alabama and throughout the South were re-enslaved in the years following the Civil War, due in part to laws specifically written to facilitate the arbitrary arrest of African Americans. Unable to pay the resulting fines, in addition to the costs for their own arrests, they were sold as forced labor to mines, railroads, farms, and quarries.” Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s director had sent the book to a man working in the prison library of an Alabama prison.

Books ready to be mailed

The Department based its decision on a regulation, which states that any piece of mail or other material “may be determined to be a threat to the security of the institution.” The case was settled in 2013, when the book was allowed in the prison.

When the evening draws to a close in the Free Bird basement, there are at least eight bags full of packaged books that need to be mailed. The brown packages clog up the first postbox and we haul the bags to the second, around the corner. I imagine someone in a cell unpacking and reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and I know this was an evening well spent.

About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

2 Responses to #RuthInAmerica: Books Through Bars

  1. rumikern says:

    What an extraordinary project! Thanks fro reporting on this. The story of Gregory Bright was especially touching and inspiring.

    I don’t know how it works in S. Africa, but here in the US, as has come to light recently (thanks to truth-seeking journalists!), it is apparent that the opportunity for prosecutorial abuse of power is vast and without consequence. Prosecutors are given such wide latitude and provided complete immunity for their overreach. This recent case highlights such:

    Here, the prosecutor, up for re-election, had to deliver an attention-grabbing “tough on crime” headline. Of course, turns out it was a fraud, and the new incoming DA himself advocated for reversal and exoneration. Yet there is no punishment for this prosecutor’s abuse of power and the lives he wrecked.

    However, it seems like most matters such as these, we’re not moved until it affects us or someone we know. Your reporting helps keep prosecutorial and prison abuse in front of us – making their stories deeply personal and showing us why it so deeply matters.

  2. Thulani says:

    Inspiring story of Gregory Bright it tells a very powerful story of how reading can change one’s life. I’m one of those who was spending time reading and writing while serving time.

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