Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2023 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 71, printed March 22. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.
By Melinda Lewis
“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading has opened to me. I knew right there in a prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” — Malcolm X
For Malcolm X, his time in prison was transformative. Most would surmise that it was because of his introduction to the Muslim faith and the influence of Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam. The time that he spent reading in prison, however, could arguably have been just as compelling.
Describing books as his “alma mater,” Malcolm said he could spend the rest of his life reading. As his daughter Attallah Shabazz describes in her foreword to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Malcolm “found himself gravitating to the prison libraries after he was incarcerated.” In fact, he “out-read the library stock.”
Malcolm X’s prison cell at Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts, where he read so much, is becoming a library itself due to the work of Reginald Dwayne Betts. The winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Betts was himself incarcerated and spent his nine years in prison writing and reading. He is now working to set up 1,000 micro-libraries through his charity Freedom Reads, according to the organization’s website.
Just as Malcolm X did, many incarcerated folks spend their time reading, including here in Virginia. As reported in Richmond Magazine, Shebri Stacy Dillon, a prisoner recently at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, was looking for a book suggested by Calvin Arey, one of the plaintiffs in Landman v. Royster. That was a landmark class-action lawsuit launched by prisoners at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1969 which successfully challenged a century-old tradition, known as the “hands-off doctrine,” in which courts treated prisoners as “slaves of the state” and deferred to prison officials in their treatment of prisoners.
The book Dillon was looking for was Chris Hedges’ “Our Class,” but she couldn’t find it in the prison library. The book describes the degradations and dehumanizations of the U.S. prison system. After Arey mailed it to Dillon, she became the librarian and caretaker of many books, and a Freedom Library was born.
Dillon named the library after Albert Woodfox, a Black Panther who was wrongfully convicted of killing a prison guard and spent 44 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison before his release in 2016. His 2019 book “Solitary” is a part of the library’s collection.
In every book, Dillon inscribes “Donated by Calvin Arey, who believes you are more than the worst thing you have ever done.” It’s a quote from Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 bestseller “Just Mercy: Story of Justice and Redemption.”
Contacted for this article, Dillon shared how much the Albert Woodfox Mini Freedom Library has grown. She also shared how she has begun a library at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland County, where she was recently transferred. The mini freedom library at Fluvanna has been left in the able hands of two other women.
Meanwhile, other freedom libraries have been started at the Augusta, Greensville and River North prisons, according to the Richmond Magazine article.
Freedom libraries can not only be a source of empowerment, education and aliveness, but also a relief, in many cases, to constrained prison budgets. Although the American Library Association sets Standards For Adult Correctional Institutions, many libraries around the country may not meet them.
Virginia‘s Department of Corrections’ website does not indicate how much it spends on prison libraries. After contacting the department, Chief Financial Officer Louis Eacho indicated that the department currently has “twenty-three (23) Librarian and two (2) Librarian Assistant positions. In addition, $144,000 in funding for books and subscriptions is provided to the libraries on an annual basis. The libraries are also open to receiving donations of appropriate materials.”
Department staff also indicated that the funding has remained the same over the past couple of years.
Questioned about whether the department uses the American Library Association’s Standards For Adult Correctional Institutions and whether it complies, department staff said they do use the standards and comply with them.
The Appalachian Prison Book Project is one of the organizations that donates books to prison libraries, including in Virginia. If their experience is any indication, prison library budgets and stock may need supplementing. As the organization notes, “prison populations continue to increase, but their library shelves continue to narrow.”
Serving the six Appalachian states – Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, the Book Project says it receives requests from incarcerated individuals usually seeking “dictionaries, almanacs, mystery novels, biographies and more. Some requests are even from prison libraries themselves.”
Students at Virginia Tech have a similar objective with their Prison Book Project, a satellite program of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. According to an article on its website, Brian Britt, a professor in the Department of Religion and director of the Prison Book Project, was contacted by the Appalachian Prison Book Project requesting religion books, “one of the most commonly requested genres through the project.”
According to Britt, there’s “a much higher level of awareness among young people these days about issues of mass incarceration, so they’re very excited about this work.” Responding to requests from across Virginia, usually at book wrapping parties where letters are read from incarcerated individuals, these students help create the “alma mater” Malcolm X so eloquently described.
Prisoners seeking books can write to the Appalachian Prison Book Project at: APBP, PO Box 601, Morgantown, WV 26507.
Categories: Cops, Courts & Prisons
I want to express my gratitude to Melinda Lewis for writing this story about the Albert Woodfox Memorial mini Freedom Libraries and also to The Virginia Defender for publishing the obituary of Leroy Mason, one of my co-plaintiffs in Landman v Royster.