The Durham, NC-based Prison Books Collective is an active A.R.T. Library Program participant that provides A.R.T. Library Program books directly to incarcerated readers. A.R.T. caught up with Prison Books Collective member Samah Majadla to discuss the challenges and importance of accessing books in prison. The interview was conducted by A.R.T. Board Member and prison justice activist Jo Miller Gamble.
Jo Miller Gamble: How did you come to work with Prison Books Collective?
Samah Majadla: Volunteering has always been a thread in my life. Giving back to communities that are underserved, underprivileged and unheard. I'm Palestinian; I was born in Israel and I spent most of my life there until I was 17. So I have a very personal experience with being part of a marginalized community that is unheard.
JMG: Can you describe what a day volunteering with Prison Books Collective is like?
SJ: Right now we have a stack of letters from incarcerated people that we will answer. You choose a letter, you read the letter. Sometimes people ask for very specific books. Sometimes people ask about genres. Sometimes people just say, "I heard y'all give books. Can I have some books?" And you kind of have to figure out what is an appropriate set of books, resources, whatever that would match this person's request.
JMG: Are there things that you need to be careful about or keep in mind when sending and selecting books?
SJ: Absolutely. Yes. So the prisons here and across all of America have very stringent requirements as to what they allow in and what they don't allow in. We have a base list of things like no nudity, no gang-related content, no tattoos. I think there's a fear of gang-related activity in terms of the tattoos. There are certain coloring books we hesitate to send because the images could be interpreted as tattoo-like. Also nothing with handwritten text inside. And paperback books only. Those are the big things we try to watch out for. But unfortunately it's not always clear what will be returned.
JMG: Coloring books... That's surprising to me.
SJ: I mean, if it's a coloring book of flowers and animals, I think that's fine. But other images could be a problem. This year we printed out the banned book list and it would shock you the stuff that's on there—the Malcolm X biography is on there, and Game of Thrones too. I don't really understand why they are censoring some of these books. Game of Thrones is just a fantasy novel. That list is really quite interesting to go through.
JMG: I know that in my experience working with the Parole Preparation Project in New York, it's like you're dealing with a totally different institution prison by prison, and sometimes internally within each prison. You might just hit a wall with a specific administrator who’s in a really bad mood. It must be really frustrating for the Prison Books Collective too.
SJ: It is. And sometimes when we send a package the name isn't legible enough and then it gets returned. We also have to include incarcerated folks’ ID numbers and maybe they wrote it to us without a zero at the start. And the zero’s not even in the official system so we didn't include the zero. Things get rejected for all kinds of very unclear reasons.
We've had some prisons recently reject like 12 packages because they no longer want to accept anything from volunteer groups, which I think is pretty illegal on some level. We're looking to see how we can fight back.
JMG: That sounds so frustrating. Can I ask what kinds of books do people ask for most?
SJ: There are a lot of different categories of highly requested books. Fiction is almost always requested. And within that category, I think the most frequently requested are thriller, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi. I see general fiction requested a lot less, but beyond fiction, there's always people asking, how do I start a business? This makes a lot of sense to me given that once incarcerated people are released, seeking employment can be very difficult. It makes so much sense that people want to find ways to be self-sufficient. We also get a lot of language learning requests.
We also get a lot requests for books about drawing. That's a big one. How to learn how to draw. And people send us a lot of art that they make after they’ve spent time with how-to-draw books. We have a whole wall of art here at our space. We also have something we call special requests where, if the book being requested is educational—i.e., language, business, spiritual/ religious, or trade-oriented, like electric engineering or mechanical—if it fits into any of these categories and if we don't have that book, we’ll find a way to get it. We also get a lot requests for books on criminal law or other types of law, as well as books about the history of Black America and the criminal system.
JMG: Are those books harder to get into prisons?
SJ: I haven't noticed that they are. I think because they're books about history. But now that I saw the Malcolm X Bio on the banned book list, I’m not so sure.
JMG: I was surprised to see that you guys also send zines. I was looking through the zine catalog, which has an impressive collection of fairly radical titles. I was sort of surprised that a prison would let any of that literature inside.
SJ: Well, there are some titles we're not allowed to send like, for example, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. We're not allowed to send that in. And there are some places where we have decided it's better for us not to send some of the anarchist literature, given the risk that it puts on other books being able to go through—but then again, most of it is history. Prison Books Collective was originally founded as an anarchist collective back in 2006. So it does have roots in very radical philosophies.
JMG: I loved going through the Prison Books Collective’s Words of Fire anthology. The poetry, the essays, they're all really interesting and varied. Could you talk a little bit about that; how that began and how those issues are put together?
SJ: Words of Fire is a really wonderful collection of writing and drawings from the incarcerated. I believe our volunteer Leigh Lassiter spearheaded that project. People send us really moving poetry and drawings all the time, sometimes without even knowing about Words of Fire . If they don't know, we’ll ask them, "Hey, are you open to this being published?" We’ll also include solicitations on our invoices: "Hey, we're looking for material to include in a publication. Submit something within three months and we’ll put it out.”
For a lot of people who write to us, seeing their words printed is a source of pride. You feel like someone can see you; someone can read your words and empathize. They can have a glimpse into what you're feeling.
It’s very clear that people are appreciative. Especially during COVID, we got a few letters early on like, "our librarian died of COVID. We don't have access to our books anymore." Even if library access hadn't been completely decimated by COVID, the prisons were also in lockdown. They weren't able to read books outside, because we didn't know how COVID transmitted at that time. Being able to physically touch books was was pretty much off limits because the libraries were on lockdown.
It's interesting to me that during COVID, those of us who are not incarcerated have been forced into isolation. And we’re noticing the detriments that isolation has on our mental health. How can anyone living through COVID believe that extended isolation is rehabilitative?
JMG: I have one more question, and this is something I think about in my own life. I often struggle to find time to read the books that I want to read. Even in the early days of COVID when I had a lot of time on my hands, I was buying a lot of books and tending to various life “duties,” but I barely scratched the surface of the books I wanted to read. I was wondering if there are things one could learn from the reading habits of incarcerated people and their reasons for reading?
SJ: Yeah. I mean, some of the letters that come back say things like "I've read things that I would’ve never chosen and they’ve expanded my mind." For those of us on the outside, we are able to choose exactly what books and what media to consume. We have that privilege, whereas people in prison don't have a choice... They can tell us what they want, but if we don't have it, then it’s up to us to pick out something else for them. In that sense, you and I have the luxury of reading what we know we like, but for incarcerated folks they read what they can. Let me just open the door for this cat.
I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from incarcerated people who say things like, "I would never have chosen this book, but it taught me so much.” For those of us who have the privilege of choice, what are we keeping our minds shut against? Is it discomfort we are avoiding, or just things that are unfamiliar?
JMG: That’s really interesting. What you said reminds me of how Facebook became an echo chamber; how people feed their preferences into an algorithm and then get fed back more of what they like and are comfortable thinking about.
SJ: Exactly. Yeah.
JMG: And the ways that freedom of choice can be manipulated politically...
SJ: Yeah, freedom of choice. It can be hard to encounter the unfamiliar unless you're forced to. I think in general, as a human, you gravitate towards things you know. You gravitate towards cultures you know, habits you know. It's uncomfortable to step into areas where you are not familiar and incarcerated people are forced to do that in every aspect of their lives, including reading. As people on the outside, we're never going to have the same stressors or reasons for reading as people who are incarcerated. And we should all be very grateful for that. But I think we can be inspired to expand our interests, and perhaps question our confidence in different contexts. Incarcerated people have to do that every single day.
Jo Miller-Gamble is an artist, musician, and director at Rumpelstiltskin Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. He is also a longtime supporter of the Parole Preparation Project where he volunteered in 2016 and 2017.
Prison Books Collective provides literature and resources to incarcerated people, free of charge, to support them as they navigate the violent and alienating American carceral system. The materials we send encourage knowledge-gathering and community-building across walls designed to keep people apart. We remember those kept out of sight and extend humanity to the dehumanized.
Our recipients are people in jails and prisons in North Carolina and Alabama. While we focus mainly on male prisoners, the NC Women’s Prison Book Project serves women incarcerated in NC.
In addition to sending books, we mail an extensive catalog of zines across the country; we also publish Words of Fire, a semi-regular collection of art, short stories, essays, and poetry by incarcerated people.