What began as a project linking Fort Hays State University education and criminal justice majors to prisoners across the state brought an even bigger revelation to Dr. Sarah Broman Miller.
“What I found out was that the county jails, most of them, don’t have their own library,” said Broman Miller, assistant professor of teacher education. “If they do, they’re usually a law library of some sort —and by law library I mean a few books.”
Several of the jails, she discovered, had a partnership with the local public library that would ensure books for prisoners.
“When COVID happened, they didn’t have that any longer,” she said.
Broman Miller reached out to the FHSU community and to Hays First United Methodist Church — where her husband, Troy, is congregational care director — for book donations.
“I had the storeroom at the church full of books, and nowhere to go with them,” she said.
After a series of phone calls, she made connections with Norton Correctional Facility East Unit in Stockton.
“At first we were surprised because she just walked in the door one day, during COVID,” Teresa Glendening, East Unit administrator, recalled. “She had all these books, and she said she would really like to donate some if we could use them.”
The Stockton facility had an agreement with the public library to loan books, but it had expired about two years earlier.
“We’d been doing a makeshift library on our own ever since,” Glendening said. “It was excitement when she brought those books in. They were very nice books, and she probably brought around a hundred books in, nice, hardback books.”
There’s excitement when the books arrive, Glendening said.
“Everybody digs in, and they put the rest on the shelf,” she said of Stockton, a minimum custody facility with just more than 100 male prisoners.
Broman Miller had considered naming her drive the Isaiah 61: 1 Project — “That Bible verse has always touched me, because it talks about being able to release the prisoners, release the captives from guilt and shame. I just love that verse” — but ended up calling it the Liberate Book Project.
So far, she has delivered books to the Valley Hope addiction treatment centers, as well as correctional facilities in Norton, Barton County and her home base of Ellis County. She’s scheduled to make her first delivery to the jail in Johnson County, which has 600 inmates, soon. The facility even has bookshelves — but no library.
She is looking for a United Methodist Church in the Wichita area that would have facilities to store books.
Broman Miller’s dream is to provide books to county jails in all 105 Kansas counties.
“It’s my intention for Troy and I to drive across Kansas and take books to every single county in Kansas,” she said. “That’s my goal.
“I’m in the process of finding local Methodist churches that will help me,” she added, saying the churches can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or her husband, email@example.com. Troy Miller is also the FHSU campus pastor.
The United Methodist Women’s Naomi Circle at Hays First was the first to give financial support to the Liberate Book Project, donating $700.
“It’s really cool to see how much people are joining in,” Broman Miller said.
Among the fervent supporters of the Liberate Book Project is Michelle Ghumm, manager of The Arc of the Central Plains Thrift Store in Hays.
Broman Miller called about the possibility of the store donating unwanted books but didn’t realize what a connection she’d made. More than five years earlier, Ghumm had spent almost eight weeks in the Ellis County Jail on felony drug possession charges.
“Back then, they had a very small library. But it was up to the guard whether they wanted to bring the books or not, and most of the time it was not,” Ghumm said.
Ghumm said she felt fortunate to have two books with her, a novel by suspense writer David Baldacci (which she read three times) and a Bible — “I had to fight tooth and nail to get a Bible.”
“It’s like the most degrading, dehumanizing place to be, and without something to take you away for a minute, it’s just horrible,” she said.
“When you go to jail, you’re stripped down to nothing. You’re barely a human being,” Ghumm said. “You’re scared because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know when you’re going to court. Sometimes you don’t know what your charges are. You’re thinking about your kids, your grandkids, and how long you’re going to be there.
“Even if it’s just for 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there, you can be somewhere else,” she continued. “It’s just so amazing to get away from it all.”
Broman Miller, Ghumm and Glendening all said a variety of books are welcome among the prisoners, especially self-help and law books. All genres are welcome — “Basically any kind of book that helps that individual take their mind away from the life they’re currently living,” Broman Miller said.
She was given a 16-page list by the Topeka facility of titles that would not be accepted, although many books on the list have been challenged, she said. Atlases or any book with maps will be turned away, she added.
Broman Miller’s interest in the prison population began at a faculty leadership seminar at FHSU a year earlier, when she and Dr. April Terry, assistant professor of criminal justice, compared ideas about a program that would connect female inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility with their children and grandchildren.
“I had always had the same heart to do that,” Broman Miller said of Terry. “We just clicked.”
They received grant money for a program they called Bonding with Books, which purchased young-adult level chapter books for the women, and ways for them to record themselves reading books to their children and grandchildren.
“We were hoping we could build the incarcerated women’s motivation to read,” Broman Miller said.
Her education students and Terry’s criminal justice students went from Hays to Topeka to talk to the inmates.
“It helped break the barriers and the misconceived ideas,” she said. “This helped put humanity to these women, to actually give them a face.
“At the time I thought it would be something helpful. I had no idea the need for books,” she said. “I had no clue.”
The women Broman Miller spoke with were mostly in prison for drug possession or petty theft, she said.
Many of them were kicked out of their homes as teenagers and had to fend for themselves, leading to lives of crime and/or self-medicating.
“There by the grace of God go I,” said Broman Miller, a native of Russell. “These women are just like me in the prison. Some of them, granted, took different turns in life than me, but some of them — whether they’re women or men — didn’t have as great of an upbringing than I did.
“We all have things in our life, and certainly we can’t use those things as excuses, but those things develop us and shape us into who we are,” she added. “I had a lot more resources available than a lot of these people.”
Isaiah 61:1 sticks with her as she rounds up books and drives them to prisons, Broman Miller said.
“I just feel like that’s part of our responsibility as Christians,” she said. “God told us to love and care for the widows and the people in prison. They don’t stop being Christian because they’re incarcerated. And I feel like they’re forgotten.”
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.