An Interview with Michelle Alfano

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: What is the mission of Midwest Books to Prisoners?


Michelle: Fundamentally, we believe that everyone deserves to read. We also believe that reading changes lives. We don't look at people's cases and what crime they were convicted of committing. Our focus is on people's personal growth and development while incarcerated. Most people will come out of prison, and re-enter society, at some point. Therefore, it is in everyone's best interest to help these individuals read, develop themselves, and grow.


Gordon: Are there any reports on how reading books benefits prisoners’?


Michelle: Yes, without a doubt, reading substantially reduces recidivism. Many individuals in prison are discovering reading for the first time in their lives. It starts out that they want a book because the boredom of prison is torturous. But it doesn't take long for them to become hooked on reading, which in essence is the beginning of an entirely new journey in their lives. People who may not have even graduated from high school become critical thinkers through their readings, and change the focus in life in very positive ways.


Here are just two articles of the hundreds that address this.

A critical impasse: literacy practice in American prisons and the future of transformative reading by Kathrina Sarah Litchfield

Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison” by James S. Vacca


Gordon: What book topics are most popular and why?


Michelle: Ohhhhhh! There are so many favorites. People who are short-termers (getting released in the near future) tend to be focused on trades, how to start their own business, job skills, and communication skills. I had one request recently for a book on how to pour cement! The long-term inmates, on the other hand, might request a book on crocheting, and a 3000-5000 page history book. They often become experts in history! The "Harry Potter" series is always popular and if anyone would like to donate that to us, we'd love to have it!


Gordon: Are there any prisons who refuse to accept books? If so, which ones and what reasons do they give?


Michelle: Sadly, it is not easy to get our books into prisons. Right now, of the Midwestern states, Indiana and Michigan are not allowing books in and it is really sad for us when we get so many "desperate for books" letters from inmates in those states. But even with the states that do accept books, the institutions are very strict. We got a National Geographic magazine returned to us yesterday. It was not accepted inside because "it was not a current issue". What this shows you is that sometimes, the rejections are seemingly random or arbitrary. What is tricky for us is that each institution has its own rules. Some accept hard-covers, others don't. Some accept used books, others don't. In any event, we are very dedicated to the mission of getting books into inmates' hands, and we work with the rules of each institution as best we can. A big motivation for us are the many letters we receive from inmates telling us how much they appreciate our efforts. The books get them through very dark hours, and indeed, change their lives. I am a retired high school teacher, so the inmates who particularly move me are the youngsters (young people in their early twenties). They often didn't finish high school and got drawn into bad circumstances early in their lives by the influences of bad friends. With a little attention, it is amazing what reading does for the youngsters... Finally, the work we do gives us great humility. We are always learning from the inmates, and reminded that: There, but for the grace of God, go I.


Gordon: What can our readers do to help resolve this problem?


Michelle: Anyone who is interested in helping can volunteer with us to package books. We operate out of a church near Sox Park in Chicago. It is a very rewarding effort! We love book donations, and we are always in need of financial donations to cover our large postage expenses.


There is an easy place on our web site to donate: https://www.midwestbookstoprisoners.org/


Gordon: Where can our readers donate books?


Michelle: If someone would like to donate books, call us at: 708-381-8155 or email me at mica104@yahoo.com. We are a non-for-profit organization, and financial donations are tax deductible.


Gordon: Thank you for this insightful interview and for all of the great work that you and your associates do.