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Books to Prisoners: Literacy as a Right

In 2007, the Federal Bureau of Prisons made the decision to expunge all religious materials from prison libraries nationwide in an effort to prevent prisons from becoming potential “recruiting grounds” for terrorists. Amid public outcry and inmate lawsuits, the bureau was forced to reverse its initiative.

One-year prior, Pennsylvania was forced to justify, in court, its statewide ban on all news, magazines, and photographs to a sizable portion of the state’s inmate population.

Though the line between constructive rehabilitation and vengeful punishment has been one constantly negotiated in our prison system since its inception, the uniquely bizarre national climate, the swing in national discourse towards a more punitive penal system has made organizations like the Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners program, a necessity for inmates in the state of Illinois.

The UC Books to Prisoners project began with one University of Illinois Library and Information Science graduate a few years ago, who began with a few donations and an example, set by other books to prisoners programs in the state. Since then the organization has swelled to distribute nearly 24,000 books to almost four thousand inmates in Illinois.

For an all-volunteer organization, the project is fairly ambitious. The program offers books by mail to all Illinois inmates, staffs lending libraries in the two local Champaign County jails and publishes a ‘zine of inmate-authored words and art.

According to Suzanne Linder from Books to Prisoners, the inmates’ reactions were, “Largely appreciative. We’ve grown from serving 20 inmates to three to four thousand inmates that we contact with regularly. There is a tremendous need for reading materials in prisons.”

Indeed, decreases funding for prison libraries has positioned programs like this one as sometimes the sole source of literature for inmates.

“These books go directly to prisoners and become their personal property,” Linder says, “Increasingly, funding for libraries is being cut…and often we find prisons use access to the library as a form of control. One of the things we believe is that literacy is a right.”

Another function of the organization is to provide a venue for prisoners to tell their stories. Prisoners write letters to the organization requesting books, which are then read by volunteers. The process of giving a voice to these inmates eventually grew to encompass a yearly ‘zine consisting of poetry, photography, art, prose and other artistic contributions from Illinois inmates. According to Linder, the effort came about as a result of a volunteer several years ago that was interested in publishing inmate art and poetry. Books for Prisoners publish the ‘zine as volunteer time allows.

Volunteers at the program have an opportunity to participate in a number of different activities. “Pack-a-thons” are held several times a week where requested literature is packed up and shipped off to Illinois prisons. Volunteers can sign up to work a few shifts at Champaign County jail lending libraries, where the program staffs, stocks, and operates these libraries. The organization’s book sales remain the sole method of covering the $400-600 a month shipping costs.

“We have a core group of about 10-15 [volunteers] who manage day to day operations,” Linder says. “With everyone from middle schoolers through retired people who work with us regularly. During the school year several student organizations volunteer a few times a month.”

As Linder points out, the unique nature of the work keeps volunteers coming back for more.

“When people get involved it’s a pretty rewarding volunteer experience,” Linder says. They find it sort of takes over more of their life than they had necessarily planned it to.”

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