Books Behind Bars

Kay Allison is truly one of the unsung heroes of the book world. This independent bookstore owner is the force driving Books Behind Bars, a program that works to get used books into the hands of prisoners in nearly 40 different facilities.

Some of the prisoners are studying for their GED, while others are simply hungry for a positive way to pass their time.  Allison, who has been running this volunteer program for 20 years, hears from about 20 prisoners a week. They write, both to request books and to express their 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," wrote one. (More such letters can be seen at the Books Behind Bars website.)

Allison is the owner of Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, Va., and, according to, donates 10-15 hours/week of her time and hundreds of dollars a month to keep this program running. A "handful" of volunteers help her.

Books Behind Bars also recruits volunteers to become pen pals  with prisoners, as some have little contact with family and friends while serving their sentences. Allison told that she believes her program is worthwhile because it offers prisoners 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," says one Books Behind Bars volunteer.

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