The United States leads the world in incarceration, with more than 2 million people currently in state and federal custody. Most people now understand what mass incarceration is, but few think about the indignity that accompanies even a moment in a cell persists. The iconography of prison reinforces the degradation: handcuffs, iron bunks, steel cell doors, homemade shanks. The Million Book Project creates a rhetorical and functional response to this specifically American fact, and offers the book as both a resource and a symbol of freedom, restoring hope, dignity, meaning and purpose to those incarcerated.
The Million Book Project will bring curated 500-book literary time-capsules to 1,000 prisons and juvenile detention centers to each state in the United States, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. As children, many of us recall putting items inside a metal canister to tell the future how we lived. Much of prison feels like being locked in a timeless zone. The books included will run the range of subject matter and genre, from classic children’s books like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Junot Diaz’s Islandborn to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. These collection to help those serving time contemplate their tomorrows and a testament to the power of reading and readers because, as Harold Bloom has written, “we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.” The end result will be an opportunity to reclaim mental space and dignity.
The Million Book Project, was conceptualized by poet and legal scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16, who will also serve as its Project Director. Professor Elizabeth Hinton, Associate Professor of History & African American Studies and Professor of Law, will serve as its special advisor. Tess Wheelwright serves as the Project Manager.