BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For Bernard Jemison and others incarcerated in Alabama prisons, receiving mail from others is a kind gesture that does not go unappreciated.
“At the prison I’m at now, we’ve got nothing but a television and to have something to read or to write letters, interact back and forth,” he pauses. “It really gets the mind off of the everyday steps of prison life and gives you something to look forward to, gives you something positive to do.”
Books to Prisoners organizations have existed in the U.S. since the early 1970s. There are currently bookstores and groups organized to serve almost every state, and Alabama’s is located in the heart of the Magic City.
Work on the ‘outside’
Founded in 2018, Burdock Book Collective began its story as a pop-up bookshop operated and co-owned by Meagan Lyle and Katie Willis. In June 2019, the business acquired a permanent location in a building downtown on 5th Avenue South.
Willis, one of the co-leaders of the Alabama Books to Prison Project run through Burdock, said that both she and Lyle had an interest in contributing to the cause after hearing about other bookstores doing the same.
The community effort fell into action during the pandemic, which aligned perfectly with when prisoners needed books most, according to Willis.
“There’s always been a pretty big need for our books in prisons but during COVID especially, prisoners weren’t able to access their libraries, so they had even less access to literature and resources like law libraries,” Willis said. “We thought it was even more important to send books to those folks so that they can be connected to the outside world, find an ‘escape’ from being trapped in cells and could also work on their cases if they wanted to.”
Willis also mentioned the various restrictions Alabama prisons have put in place when it comes to sending books.
“Prisoners are only allowed two books per month. They often have to put in a request with the warden of their prison before we can even send the books out,” Willis said. “Sometimes you might be unsure if a book has a romance in it if that’s going to get rejected because we can’t send books that are ‘sexual’ in content.”
Due to the limitations set by certain Alabama prisons, sending a gently used book to a prisoner is typically met with pushback.
“We can’t always send donated books for people in Alabama prisons. They often have to be brand-new books. Some prisons won’t even accept books from our bookstore,” Willis said. “Oftentimes they’ll say they have to come from Amazon which, as an independent bookstore, is very frustrating. ”
People can contribute to the Alabama Books to Prisons project in different ways. While many enjoy getting to know inmates through the pen pal program, others can just purchase a prisoner’s requested book through Burdock’s wishlist.
Life on the ‘inside’
Bernard Jemison, an inmate currently serving time in William C. Holman Correctional Facility, spoke on the phone from his prison cell about how having a pen pal can be a positive influence for a prisoner.
“It’s truly a blessing, especially at the time when I was in segregation. I was segregated for six months and I had a host of people writing me, and I wrote back to every single letter because that’s how appreciative I was of people just letting me know that they were thinking about me, that I was on their minds,” Jemison said.
Jemison explained how he was recently released from a six-month segregation in Holman, and deeply appreciated receiving mail from those concerned for his well-being.
“I was receiving a host of letters [like] thinking of me cards, friendship cards; it’s just a blessing!” Jemison said. “And I’m sure that all the other guys that are in my situation feel the same way when it comes to receiving mail. Mail is a blessing; knowing that people are just thinking about you [during a time of trouble] is a blessing and very encouraging.”
Jemison also appreciates those who have sent him books, especially religious, historical and law literature. His most recent request is “A Divine Revelation of Heaven” by Mary K. Baxter, as he lent a previous copy to an inmate who was transferred before he could return it.
“The last book I got, it got lost and I didn’t even get a chance to read it but they let it come right through,” Jemison said. “And that was at Ventress, but at other places, it was much different. They said you had to go through a request, you had to write a request first and all that.”
Jemison said reading materials are not only beneficial for the mind but also provide a glimpse of what’s going on in the world.
“I think that it’s just really beneficial for guys to engage in interaction with people in society, through penpals and also reading,” Jemison said. “Reading a number of things, whether it be educational things, keeping up with things that are going on in the world outside of this place, ’cause it’s constantly advancing and evolving so that we won’t get out of here being 20 years behind.
“Like, I’ve done 25 years — I won’t be 25 years behind time because I’ve been reading and that’s how important it is to keep up with what’s going on, keeping up with the news. It’s just beneficial and also having a relationship and a bond with people out there in the world as well so that I have someone to turn to in times of need.”