Jennifer's Heroes: Kay Allison and Books Behind Bars

By: Jennifer Black Email
By: Jennifer Black Email

July 6, 2009

Kay Allison, the owner of Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, is the brains behind a program called Books Behind Bars; prisoners from nearly 40 facilities write to her asking for reading material.

The program encourages inmates to turn their lives around, with the turn of a page. One inmate wrote Kay a letter expressing his/her gratitude.

"You've made many of my days and nights much easier, as we've have books to read when I needed to allow my mind to leave this place."

Kay has helped thousands of prisoners mentally escape in the last 20 years.

"I just think they're people who made a mistake and they deserve another chance, and you can read that in the letters," she said.

Allison and a handful of volunteers donate their time to help inmates pass the time. Prisoners write letters, requesting reading material.

"We get about 20 letters a day from the inmates asking for free books. I figured the other day it's about 10 to 15 hours [of work] a week," said Allison.

Volunteers sort through hundreds of donated books, stored on shelves on the second floor of the Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, looking to quench each prisoner's thirst for knowledge. Kay says that many of the prisoners who write in are young people trying to educate themselves or individuals studying for the GED.

Allison believes that while they reflect on their wrong doing, the prisoners have plenty of time left to learn. The most commonly requested book is a dictionary.

Allison believes her program is worthwhile because it offers a link to the outside world.

"I think there is a connection. I open up a letter and I realize it's a human being that needs help," said volunteer, Kathy Lally.

In addition to Allison's heroic efforts offering time and energy, Books Behind Bars requires a great deal of money. Each dictionary costs $7, the rent for the space to store the books about $1,100 a month, and each month Allison pays about $300 in shipping fees to get those books out.

For more on how you can support Kay Allison and her program follow the link below.

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