by Garrad Lee
Part of the story of Malcolm X is the story of redemption. Young Malcolm spent several years breaking various laws until it caught up with him on a burglary charge that sent him to prison for what amounted to an eight-year sentence. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.”
Malcolm, who went on to a storied career as a minister and activist after his release, found his solace, his voice, and himself in the books that he read while locked up. It is a story that has been repeated many times in the course of the history of incarceration in this country. It is with this in mind that several Jacksonians started the non-profit group Big House Books in 2015.
In the classic study “Literacy Behind Prison Walls,” researchers found that 89 percent of incarcerated individuals had read at least one book within the past six months, as compared to 83 percent of people at home, showing that reading is one of the most fundamental activities for prisoners.
“In December 2014, I hosted a group called the Mysterious Rabbit Puppet Army, who performed an incredible shadow puppet history of the prison industrial complex. Many members of the group were also part of the North Carolina-based Prison Books Collective. At the time they were servicing North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. They poured out a bin full of unfilled requests from Mississippi prisoners to show us they were overwhelmed. And asked us to step up. We did,” says co-founder Shelby Sifers.
Based on the model implemented by Prison Books Collective, Big House Books began collecting books from the community in Jackson and holding “book packing parties” to prepare packages to be sent to inmates all across the state.
“We started sending books in January of this year. So far we have sent over 500 packages of three books each to prisoners in Mississippi,” Sifers says. “We fill individual requests from prisoners, so we have sent packages to most long-term facilities in the state.”
Along with Sifers, Holly Smith and Kelsey Kitch sit on the board of Big House Books, which is a registered 501(c)3. Kitch says, “I got involved very early with Big House Books, when we were still trying to log requests inherited from the North Carolina group. Our little team would sit at Cups in Fondren every Sunday afternoon and do data entry with our laptops in a circle. At that point, we were trying to get a handle on the needs and how to move forward. We started with the small stuff we could handle and worked out from there. Although we’re based in Midtown, Fondren is where Big House Books began.”
Big House Books does a lot of outreach at events like Fondren’s First Thursday, where they can promote their mission, raise funds, and recruit volunteers.
According to The United States Department of Justice, Mississippi’s incarceration level, which is 1,270 people per 100,000 adults over the age of 18, is well above the national average, which means there is a great need for the books that the group provides. And there are several ways people can get involved. Postage is the main expense, Sifers says, as it typically costs between $3 and $5 to send a package of books. Since all of their books are donated, Big House Books is always looking for book donations.
“The books we need most are dictionaries, thesauruses, books featuring main characters of color, as well as self-improvement for victims of sexual assault, drug addiction, and other ailments that are not properly addressed in the current criminal justice system,” Sifers says. Finally, the group is always accepting volunteers for the board, fund raising planning, book packing, grant writing, and outreach.
Ultimately, the goal of Big House Books is to bring people together to help out a population that is often forgotten and neglected. “We are advocates for dramatic prison reform that would focus on therapeutic methodology, rehabilitation, and opportunity. In the meantime, our mission is to empower prisoners to learn and grow within the broken system we have now,” Sifers says.
Kitch adds, “On a tactile level, it’s incredibly heartening to see how people have risen to Big House Book’s mission. When I go outreach events like Fondren’s First Thursday or host a book packing party, I see people investing their time and money in the organization. And in only a few months time of formally organizing, we’ve been able to make an impact on prisoners around the state. It’s truly exciting to see how we’ve grown and what the near future looks like.”