Alabama Prisons

A Books-to-Prisons Program Creates Connection Behind Bars

Hermann Traub, Pixabay

Cornell Nobles has spent the last 13 years in the Alabama prison system. Like many incarcerated individuals, he feels disconnected from the outside world and frustrated by the stigma incarcerated people face.

“We just want to be treated equally. We want to be known as people,” he said. “A lot of times we get looked at as less than because we’re incarcerated.”

Katie Willis and Megan Lyle, founders of the Birmingham-area Burdock Book Collective, understand this need for connection and the frustration those who are incarcerated face, which is why in 2020 they began their books-to-prisons program.

They advertised in a national prison newsletter, and they received an overflow of book requests.

“We noticed that other books-to-prison projects in other states were not focusing on Alabama. We are trying to focus our efforts here,” said Willis.

The reason Alabama is often neglected by these books-to-prisons initiatives is due in part to strict state requirements. Usually, the books must be paperback, have a blank white cover and be brand new. But even then, books are still not guaranteed to enter the facilities.

“There’s this overarching set of rules that Alabama prisons are supposed to all follow. But then they all sort of tailor it to themselves … it’s inconsistent,” Willis added.

Though they send 50 to 100 books at a time, it is not surprising if a sizable portion of these are rejected. It could even come down to a correctional officer simply deciding not to accept the donations.

“It’s disappointing to get rejected books, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the end. I don’t think we’ve ever felt like we wanted to give up because it does also just feel like such important work,” said Willis.

Despite the challenges, Willis and Lyle have been able to send more than 400 books into correctional facilities. Those books do not just reach one person but circulate throughout the prison.

Along with books to prison, they run a pen pal program. They match individuals inside prisons with those outside based on similar interests. Through letters and phone calls, pen pals can connect with one another, creating meaningful friendships.

This is how Nobles met Lyle two years ago. They stay in touch regularly.

“You never know the lives you can impact on both ends,” Nobles said. “The relationship I have with Megan, our friendship, is something that I really can’t put words to really describe that I appreciate.”

In their conversations, Lyle is not judgemental and remains open-minded. Lyle has sent him books about his interests, such as those about historical figures and Japanese gardens.

“Our own individual pen pal friendships are really life giving … I have learned so much from my pen pals,” Lyle said, ”I want other people to have that experience, I guess … to just be connected to somebody.”

As Nobles said, both programs are an opportunity for those on the outside to see those serving time as who they are apart from their offenses: people. Not a statistic or a danger, but individuals deserving of connection.