Mellon Foundation commits $5.25 million for prison libraries

Mellon Foundation commits $5.25 million for prison libraries

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, has announced a $5.25 million initiative to provide books to prisons across the United States. 

To that end, the foundation-funded Million Book Project will distribute, over the next three and a half years, a curated five-hundred-book collection to a thousand medium- and maximum-security prisons and juvenile detention centers in every state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. With the dual goals of improving access to books — including poetry, literature, history, and works of social thought — across the prison system and creating opportunities for incarcerated people to interact with authors and the literary community, the initiative also will recruit fifty-two writers and scholars to serve as ambassadors for the program and participate in a nationwide reading series in prison facilities.

The first major initiative announced by the foundation as part of a new grantmaking strategy focused on advancing social justice, the project's collections will include significant representation of Black writers and thinkers whose work offers analyses of social injustice, a diverse range of life stories, and visions of a more just society. Conceived by poet, Yale Law alumnus ('16), and legal scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts — who first encountered Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander's poetry at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, where he was incarcerated after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at age 16 — the project will commission Titus Kaphar to create a sculptural bookshelf that will be replicated and house the first set of five hundred books.

"Reading is a transformative, dignity-affirming act that reveals who we are to ourselves and strengthens our shared humanity," said Alexander. "The knowledge, critical thinking, and imagination found in books enable us to envision freedom and possibility. The Million Book Project is rightly the first grant we have made since the public announcement of our new strategic direction — one that even more firmly roots the Mellon Foundation's work in social justice. Through the magnitude and vision of the Million Book Project, we affirm the right of those who are incarcerated to robust participation in the imaginative and intellectual life of American society, and we are determined to do our part to help rectify the systemic inequities that currently exclude them from that engagement." 

"My own experience as a formerly incarcerated individual has been distinctively shaped by the power of books," said Betts. "In books is where I found redemption, reading is where I found freedom, and writing is where I was able to express my individual thought, imagination, and creativity. Through the Million Book Project, I hope each and every one of my incarcerated brothers and sisters will be able to find a newfound freedom and hope that only literature can bring."

"Freedom to Read: "Million Book Project" Brings Literature to 1,000 US Prisons." Andrew W. Mellon Foundation press release 06/30/2020.