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Mellon Foundation to Provide $5.25 Million in Program to Distribute Books to Prisoners

The program will provide the same 500-book collection to 1,000 prisons.

While there had been discussion at the foundation to invest more in projects related to social justice issues before the killing of George Floyd, foundation president Elizabeth Alexander said the current national introspection arising from his death made the shift particularly timely. “I had always been thinking about what stories haven’t been told, what knowledge hasn’t been seen as precious, what voices have been denied to us?” Alexander said in an interview with The New York Times.

The book collections, dubbed “freedom libraries,” are to include a generous variety of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, science and more. The decision not to limit the collections to self-help books or religious books or books about self-improvement was based on Alexander’s belief that “[t]he way that people are improved happens through poetry, it happens through history and in all kinds of ways.”

The idea for the new program, called the Million Book Project, originated in 2006 when Reginald Dwayne Betts met Alexander (a poet and former humanities professor) at a poetry workshop. Betts had discovered Alexander’s poetry while he was a teenager confined at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia after being tried as an adult for a crime he committed at age 16.

Betts, who has now published three collections of poetry and a memoir and who is in charge of the Million Book Project with the Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, said of the program, “[t]his is unlocking not just one world but dozens if not hundreds of worlds for people.”

He recalled how his world broadened when a prison interlibrary loan program made the works of poets such as Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove available. “My own experience as a formerly incarcerated individual has been distinctively shaped by the power of books,” said Betts, who is also a legal scholar, having graduated with a J.D. from Yale Law School in 2016. He and Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history, African-American studies, and law at Yale, will choose the 500 books. 


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