Shelby Parsons on Big House Books
Big House Books is a Jackson organization that serves prisoners and inmates across the state of Mississippi. Founded in December 2014, Big House Books sends three books to every prisoner that writes a letter with a list of preferred texts. California native Shelby Parsons is the executive director, and she has lived in Jackson for five-and-a-half years. She also works full-time as the communications manager for Mississippi Spay and Neuter. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips spoke with Parsons about BHB and what can be done to continue to help prisoners across the state.
Tell me about the organization’s history. How and when did it get started?
“So in 2014, in December, I’m part of a cooperative live-work space, and we hosted a group from North Carolina… Some of those same folks were part of a books-to-prisoners program in North Carolina. North Carolina had been sending books to prisoners in Mississippi, and they were overwhelmed. They’d actually brought all the letters that they hadn’t been able to answer. It was like one of those big postal boxes, and they just dumped it all on the floor and were like, ‘Who’s going to help us?’ So, from that, several people said, ‘Yeah, we can figure that out.’ So that’s how we started, and then, a year later, we started sending books after we got our nonprofit status and kind of figured out the logistics and things like that. So now we’re two years into sending books.”
It sounds like the organization started pretty small, then.
“We’re still super small. We’re all volunteers with full-time jobs. And when I say all of us, it’s just whoever shows up.”
So how many volunteers total do you have at this point, would you say?
“Maybe like 20 different people, but our board is three people. There can be between two and 10 people on any given week. So first, we met at Cups every Sunday, and there were three or four of us just putting these letters into a database to try and make sense of it all and figure out how we were going to keep track of it… Then we met every week to figure out how to start a nonprofit and things like that. I think there were about three or four of us. There still are, it’s about the same. Just different people.”
Are you sending books to every prison throughout the state?
“In the first place, there were all these letters that we responded to with books, and then as soon as one person in a facility gets books, everyone in the facility starts writing letters. So, there are a few county jails who we’re starting to receive letters from. So, once we send that first set of books, it’s going to blow up. We’re still getting into a lot of the county jails, but in terms of the prisons, yes. Parchman (Farms, i.e. Mississippi State Penitentiary) and South Mississippi Correctional Facility stopped accepting books that we were sending…”
I thought that was just hard-covered books.
“All prisons accept soft-cover books, but we send them directly to the individual, the reason for that being, they can take the library away as a punishment… So, the idea was to send them to individuals, what they wanted, and they got what they wanted to read or learn. They didn’t have to wait for it at the library or wait until they got out of lockdown. These two facilities are saying, ‘Well you can just send them to the library…’ So, right now, we’re trying to just let that settle as it is…”
What are some of the county jails that are still learning about Big House Books?
“We (just) started getting ones from Rankin County Jail. I think there was one in Adams County. Central Mississippi Prison in Pearl is the one we get the most requests from, but the county jail, nobody there had picked up on it. I think the turnover might be different. A lot of the folks just probably don’t have the resources that people in the prisons have who are there longer, it’s smaller, things like that. But it’s generally some of the smaller jails.”
How does Big House Books obtain the books to donate?
“It’s all donated. They’re all donated. I just picked up a bunch from University Press. They did a book drive for us over the holidays. I just met with someone who’s doing a book drive for us in the Glass House in Fondren corner. So, books are something that no one cares about now, except for prisoners. So, we have a really great advantage in terms of getting books, because everybody wants to get rid of them. Some people do (keep them), but you’re the exception. But most folks, when they hear we have books, they’re like, ‘Here’s four truck loads of books…’ It’s great for us, and also, I work for a non-profit during the day. We have a thrift store. Books are five for a dollar, so if I see great books, I’m just going to grab them. We never have any trouble getting books.”
Are there any restrictions or guidelines on what books you can send besides being soft-cover books?
“Each prison has their own rules. Some say you can’t have certain themes, like if they’re oversexualized. Romance, for some reason, is fine. No guns on the cover.”
Are there any banned titles Mississippi prisoners can’t have?
“Not that I know of officially. We haven’t had a lot of returned books, one, because we’re paying attention to what they will take, and, two, because we check and make sure a prisoner is where they are before we send them… So, we don’t get a lot of things sent back, and we really test the limits on that. For the most part, it’s all the same — just soft-back. Some of them want new books. So we’ll send them new-looking books, things like that. No violence.”
With the data that you originally collected and from the books you’ve been sending, what’s the most popular kind of book or genre prisoners are asking for?
“Educational, for the most part. We were really surprised in the beginning that everyone wanted a dictionary. We didn’t expect that. And now that we’ve sent everyone a dictionary, pretty much everyone has one, so they’re not asking anymore. But, that was the biggest surprise.”
Are there certain kinds of books of which you don’t have a large supply?
“In terms of what we never have enough of is urban fiction or books by black authors, books in other languages. We just had a prison librarian who’s an inmate write us saying, ‘We have all these Spanish-speaking prisoners, and we have zero books in Spanish in our library.’ So we sent them a box of books all in Spanish. A lot of people want to learn a different language, like Japanese or Greek or whatever, just a lot of different languages. (We send) Spanish-English dictionaries, stuff like that.
“Learning to draw. People want to learn to draw, and those are books that people never want to get rid of, so we’re always short on those. We buy a lot of puzzle books, because they just want something to do. Composition books, we probably send out about 50 of those a week, because people are writing or journaling. I have a whole list, but those are some of the books that we’re just always out of that people consistently ask for. Recently I did have to buy a lot of books by black authors, just because we don’t get them in enough, but I really want to make sure that people are getting them.”
What’s the organization’s yearly budget?
“I went through our statements, and BHB brought in $7,375 in 2017. We spent $6,418.”
What does the budget pay for?
“Postage is our main cost. We spend, at this point at our capacity, we spend about $600 a month on postage. So, that’s why we raise funds, we pay rent and for shipping supplies… books. Nobody’s staff or anything. We’re all volunteer.”
What are the budget’s sources?
“All donations. We haven’t gotten any grants, so it’s all been individual donations — $5, $10. Our biggest donation was $1,000, and that’s happened once. Gotten a couple of $250 donations, and that goes really far with us.”
About how many books total are you able to donate to inmates across the state per year?
“I counted it up at the end of the year , and we had sent 1,200 packages of three books each, so that’s 3,600 books. Plus, we filled a couple of libraries, so definitely over 4,000 books went into the hands of prisoners in 2017.”
How do prisoners get to choose the three books they’d like you to send?
“They know that we’re limited, so they’ll just send a whole list of things they want to learn about. Ideally, we would be sending each person books once a month, and they’d write us once a month. Right now, we’re trying to at least keep up with every three months, because our backlog is real fast, and we need more manpower to get through it, and of course more money.”
What are the different ways to get involved and volunteer for the organization?
“We’re all volunteers, and we, right now, try to meet at least once a week. What we need most is people to just say, ‘I’m going to be here on this day at this time,’ so that we can invite other volunteers to be there… We usually (pack books) for like two to three hours. People can do it in whatever fun way they want to do it. We did a Christmas cookie potluck on Christmas Eve. We did a costume party volunteer night on Halloween. We’re just trying to make it silly, and we always call it a ‘packing party.’ It’s a pretty fun volunteer experience, because we’re just all talking, and you’re reading these amazing letters, and it gets pretty deep. So, we have a good time.”
How can they contact the organization for more information?
“We always post (packing) days on Facebook, so people can check our Facebook and find out when we’re doing stuff. People can call or text 769-218-9155, but you have to leave a message.”