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Student’s volunteer work inspires her to help inmates and at-risk youth

Heather Davis admits there were times when her parents really weren’t sure what to make of her political activism, especially her work as a young teen around incarceration issues.

“I think they were really kind of confused about it,” said Davis, a first-year MSW student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program. “I’ve always been a do-gooder type in their eyes. But in high school, I used to go to the vigils in Raleigh they would hold to protest the death penalty, and my dad was not supportive of that. He thought I was too young to understand such complicated matters.”

Nevertheless, Davis was undeterred and continues today to advocate for inmate rights, including political prisoners. Her work and interest in the movement has largely grown from her involvement in the Prison Books Collective, a Carrboro-based group of volunteers who since 2006, have collected and distributed books and resource guides to thousands of prisoners all over the South.

Davis was drawn to the group as a teen, in part, because of a favorite uncle who she said was imprisoned for 13 years.

“I wrote to him a lot while I was growing up,” she explained. “And I just remember when he got out, he mailed me all this random stuff that he had collected while he was in prison, including some National Geographic thing about Native Americans and a cool poster with some fish on it.”

But one item in particular stood out, she added.

“It was an Earth First! journal, which is published by this radical environmentalist earth defense group, and I remember I was so shocked by that because I knew he could have only gotten that from a prison books group. And that was just really cool to me because it was something he had hung onto because he thought, ‘Oh, my niece would love this.’”

The gift further fueled Davis’ interest and as a student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, she began working with a similar collective that served as pen pals for prisoners. Then, after graduating in 2012 with a degree in women, gender and sexuality studies, Davis moved back home to Raleigh and reconnected with the Prison Books Collective.

“We get pretty constant written requests,” said Davis, who also works part time with Family Violence & Rape Crisis Services in Chatham County. “On a good week, we fulfill two dozen packages. We’re definitely getting more and more requests from older people who maybe have lost contact with their families or maybe don’t have family members anymore. And to them, we’re all they have. They’re just reaching out.”

Davis said the inmates have taught her a lot more about the industrialized prison system as well as what it means to be a social worker. She hopes to eventually work with youth at-risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline or with programs that help the incarcerated re-enter communities after serving prison time.

“I think it’s given me some perspective on what it means to come from a place of education and privilege and to work with people who don’t have that and will never have that,” she said. “And in terms of humility and just realizing what you are able to do isn’t everything that people need. We’re sending books to prisoners, an effort that is the bare minimum. But I know it makes such a huge difference because people who have been or are currently incarcerated are often totally ignored. They’re beyond marginalized. They are totally forgotten. And as social workers, it’s important to remember them.”

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