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Books Behind Bars helps women in prison stay connected

This volunteer-run collective brings literature to prisoners in Halifax

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Books packed up after the bi-weekly program. Donations allow Books Behind Bars to provide a library program to women in Burnside, as well as pay for the postage and children's books for the read-aloud program. Photo: Facebook

Books Beyond Bars is a volunteer-run collective that’s trying to improve quality of life from incarcerated women at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside. They’re doing this through two main programs: a book-to-prisoners program and a read-aloud program.

As its name suggests, the books-to-prisoners programs provides books and journals to the women at the correctional facility. Books Beyond Bars visits the women’s section of the jail every second Friday.

“There’s a program room that we go into, and we spread the books out onto the table,” says Su Donovaro, who has been a member of the collective for about two years. “There’s four day rooms in the unit, and the women come down one at a time to look at the books, and to let us know if they have any requests. We also bring in journals—usually everyone wants a journal for writing.”

They also bring in zines and magazines, including a newsletter called Cell Count, which is mainly written and edited by current and ex-prisoners.

The read-aloud program helps maintain the bond between mothers and grandmothers and their children and grandchildren. They record women reading storybooks, edit the recordings, and then send them to the women’s families. This program runs every four to six weeks.

“We get feedback after we send out the books to their kids, about how excited the kids are to get the books and to hear their mom’s voice,” says Donovaro. “We look at it as solidarity work rather than charity work because we come at it from a prison abolition viewpoint. We would like to see an alternative to the prison, but in the meantime, we do this to support folks who are inside.”

The Books Beyond Bars mission statement elaborates: “Books Beyond Bars operates with the belief that the prison system is fundamentally flawed. Sending women to prison does not support people in dealing with the issues that led to their incarceration: poverty, abuse, anger, addiction, etc.”

Although they maintain a library in a space donated by Dal Legal Aid, Books Beyond Bars is always looking for additional donations of books and journals. Every couple of weeks, the collective publishes a wish list on Facebook, in the hopes that someone might be willing to donate a copy they’ve finished. There are two pick-up locations, one at Venus Envy and another at Loaded Ladle in the Dalhousie Student Union Building. They also accept monetary and gift card donations.

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