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Books to Prisoners Book Sale returns

On Saturday, October 22 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., many volumes and their potential owners will gather at the Independent Media Center (202 S. Broadway) in downtown Urbana. The occasion is the annual Books to Prisoners Book Sale, which is the most important BTP fundraising event of the year. 

BTP is a non-profit organization that mails free books to Illinois inmates. It also operates two lending libraries, one for the downtown jail and one for the satellite jail. Incarcerated readers can request specific books or specific types of books, and BTP volunteers sift through donated inventory to connect the reader with the right material. BTP donation bins can be found in four locations around town: Parkland College, the University of Illinois English Building, Common Ground, and the IMC. The organization began over ten years ago, and since that time it has sent over 120,000 volumes to incarcerated people around the state.

The process of getting reading material to incarcerated readers is not always straightforward. According to Lolita Dumas, BTP’s volunteer coordinator, volunteers help fulfill student requests and organize boxes. Another volunteer works with a liaison from the Department of Corrections to help ensure the boxes get to the correct facility. Each box is packed efficiently but must weigh no more than 30 lbs., so there are several reading orders in each box.

In Dumas’s experience, incarcerated readers are especially interested in mystery fiction and other popular genres, such as novels by James Patterson. Dictionaries are also popular, especially for incarcerated students studying for the GED or taking higher education classes. Other inmates seek trade books, classic literature, or books on higher-level calculus. When the books are sent out, B2P includes correspondence asking if the reading request was adequately fulfilled.

“That gives us an idea of how good we are at responding to orders,” said Dumas.

Incarcerated readers are restricted from receiving certain kids of materials, such as spiral-bound books, books featuring certain kinds of erotica or explicit nudity, or books that include the image of the swastika. Weight restrictions mean that very heavy volumes, such as volumes of law, are unlikely to be mailed to inmates.

According to Dumas, reading is an important aspect of life for many incarcerated people in Illinois.

“There isn’t a whole lot to do in these institutions, especially given the recent cutbacks in education,” she said. “Prison libraries have been closing around the state, so in many cases we are inmates’ best source for getting books.”

As part of its goal of increasing access to reading material in jails and prisons, BTP is affiliated with Reading Reduces Recidivism, a program that works directly with prison librarians to put books on their shelves. “That program works directly with librarians to help them find the books they need for their shelves,” said Dumas.

The BTP book sale will feature a year’s worth of donated volumes that haven’t been placed in the hands of incarcerated readers or can’t be sent into prisons and jails. Hardcover books are $2, paperbacks are $0.50, and children’s books are under $1. This month, Common Ground is also offering customers the chance to “round up” the cost of their purchases to contribute to BTP’s cause.

Dumas emphasized that access to books helps incarcerated people as well as communities.

“Reading helps support the rehabilitation process,” she said. “Many individuals who request books from our program will be returning to this community. What better way to help with that than with the opportunity to do something productive. Many incarcerated readers are requesting books to obtain a GED or learn a trade so they’ll be productive members of society when they are released. And our books help connect them to reading while they are incarcerated.”

The BTP Book Sale takes place on Saturday, October 22 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. at the Independent Media Center (202 S. Broadway). For more information on BTP, visit their website.

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