On November 3, 2007, a conference in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois brought together 88 participants from 29 different prison book projects across the country. A similar event of this kind has not taken place since a 2002 conference in Philadelphia.
Participants shared information about issues of fundraising, censorship, and how to work with prison administrations. They compared their experiences of what has worked and what has not. All agreed that, despite their titles, prisons have failed to "correct" their prisoners. These prison activists have taken it upon themselves to reach out to those individuals who are "gone but not forgotten."
The history of the Urbana-Champaign Books To Prisoners project, host of the event, is an inspiring story. Yet it's just one example of similar projects that have sprouted up throughout the nation in places like New Orleans, Seattle, Boston, and Claremont, California. In 2004, the UC-BTP began as a small handful of volunteers carrying boxes of books around in the backs of their cars. When the local Independent Media Center purchased an old post office built in 1915, UC-BTP found the perfect home in an old mail sorting room in the basement with built-in shelves ready-made for a library.
Books flooded in from students and professors at the University of Illinois, as well as the larger community. The project has been led by those who have served time, or had loved ones who have been locked up. The UC-BTP now serves 27 Illinois state prisons and four federal penitentiaries.
UC-BTP volunteers also staff and maintain libraries in the two local jails. After a rash of jail suicides "three occurred within six months in 2004" the Sheriff was open to improving conditions. In September 2005, they moved 1,500 books into the downtown jail, and two years later they opened a second library in the satellite jail.
In just four short years, UC-BTP has become a thriving project with dozens of volunteers. To date, they have sent out 18,596 books to 2,855 prisoners. This year alone they have sent out over 10,000 books. During a pack-a-thon the weekend of the conference, they sent out 500 of those books. As one volunteer commented, "It was an incredible act of solidarity that participants wanted to spend hours in our room getting packages out."
Speakers for the national conference included Buzz Armstrong who promotes art in prisons across Michigan through his Prison Creative Arts Project. He organizes the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, an event that showcases art works from over 200 artists in prison. The opening reception for the next exhibit is March 25, 2008 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The keynote speaker was Paul Wright, founder and editor of Prison Legal News, the longest running publication of its kind and a favorite among "jailhouse lawyers." He gave a history of the modern movement to get books to prisoners which he says began in 1964 when black Muslims struggled to get the newspaper Muhammad Speaks into prisons. Wright commented on the fight to get prisoners access to literature:
"I think the hostility that we're seeing toward written materials of all stripes is a conscious hostility towards having a literate, politically conscious population. They don't want to take any chances with it. 80% of the prison population is functionally illiterate and they are spending a lot of time, money and resources to keep it that way."
For more on the local Books to Prisoners project see www.books2prisoners.org.
Brian Dolinar is an independent investigative journalist and community activist based in Champaign, Illinois.
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