Books to Prisoners, which operates out of the Champaign-Urbana Independent Media Center and supports the entire state of Illinois, takes its goal of providing literacy to incarcerated individuals seriously. The organization offers the CU community an opportunity to support a local prisoner’s educational needs through book and financial donations from surrounding areas.
Books to Prisoners is only advertised within prisons through word of mouth. If the program sounds interesting, a prisoner can write a letter of request to receive a variety of books, whether they be selections from an overall genre, a specific author or a particular title. Volunteers at the Champaign-Urbana Independent Media Center will then search donation piles, seeking to provide what the prisoner is looking for.
According to Books to Prisoners event organizer, Rachel Rasmussen, Books to Prisoners is the largest supplier of books to prisoners in the state of Illinois. “The idea is to promote literacy and education in our prisons,” she said. “It has been proven, documented, and studied, it’s a known fact, that the strongest intervention in recidivism is education. Right now, and now means the last five years, the State has not been able to afford much money on books, they’ve spent very little money on books, so our incarcerated population does not have access to book along with their libraries not being well stocked.” Rasmussen said.
Books to Prisoners does not only cater to prisons in the Champaign-Urbana area. Books are sent out all over the state. The 27 prisons that can receive books have a wide selection of books to request and if their book isn’t there, the volunteers will find a way to make it up to the prisoner or offer to keep their eyes out for the requested book as more donations come in.
Volunteers are essential to Books to Prisoners. The organization typically recruits students and alumni from the University of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana area. There is no age limit, and anyone who is willing to help is welcome. Volunteers can participate in sessions at the IMC Building on Tuesdays 7-8:30 p.m., Thursday 2-4 p.m., and Saturday from 2-4 p.m. There is no application or interview process and new volunteers can expect to get started immediately.
Books to Prisoners also works to provide books to the Champaign County Jail libraries and volunteers are also needed in these locations. “I just have always loved helping other people learn, getting them interested in reading. That’s one element of why I’m interested in this” said Ryan Ross, a senior volunteer from Books to Prisoners. He believes that any interested individual should come out, regardless of any hesitation they might feel. “Just come and see if you like it,” he said. “If you like being in a room full of books, you’ll like this.”
Other volunteers join Ross in his commitment t0 finding books for incarcerated people and share the same passion for those who are marginalized. They often advertise the program to friends and family, hoping to show more people the reality of the prison system and an effective way to help. Through the goal of literacy, Books to Prisoners obtain more books as their program spreads but they still would love help from surrounding communities.
Erika Carlson, another regular volunteer, advertises for the program constantly. “If anyone ever mentions that they’re free on Tuesday night, I’ll tell them I do this,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who wants to volunteer to contact Books to Prisoners.”
Books to Prisoners collects its books from donations and through financial donations. Book donation slots can be found in the IMC and on the UIUC campus, but financial donations allow community members to send books to the program if they’re not around a donation slot, at a $3 shipping cost.
However, there are guidelines that state what can be donated, what books are in high demand and ways to support the organization outside coming in as a volunteer. Rasmussen stresses to everyone that dictionaries, GED prep, urban fiction and history books are in high demand. Among the items that Books to Prisoners cannot accept are encyclopedias and articles. Community members can also help by asking their houses of worship to host special collections of books, cash donations, or, to hold a book drive for books in the high demand section.
For volunteers, one of the most heartwarming aspects of being involved with Books to Prisoner is receiving letters of gratitude and updates from prisoners who have benefitted the organization. It’s a common occurrence that the updates include GPA’s, plans for the future after their release from prison, and the way the books have affected the length of their sentences.