On Monday March 16, with the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States beginning to skyrocket, many who were able were already taking steps to work remotely and shelter in place. But down in the basement of the Independent Media Center, eight volunteers from Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners (B2P) were hard at work.
Aware that the pandemic would soon mean that they must close their doors, members of B2P had decided to have one last volunteer day to try and get as much work done as possible before then. So, for about eight hours that Monday, B2P volunteers worked to fulfill as many book requests, answer as many letters, and ship as many books as they could.
To Ann Lowry, B2P volunteer, this level of work was business as usual. “We were ‘dedicated,’ but not especially ‘brave,’” she explained in an email. Though the IMC basement was heavily trafficked, she knew that it would be unsafe for B2P volunteers to be coming and going more than they had to. “That’s why I worked to conceive of the process that allowed us to get all of the books shipped accurately to all of the prisoners, even those who had been transferred. I hoped we could do it in one day, and we achieved that goal.”
In that single, eight-hour day, B2P shipped about 400 orders, or an estimated 1,200-1,500 individual books. The postage costs were over $1,000, which Ann told me was B2P’s normal postage budget for about two months.
B2P delivered so many packages to the Urbana Post Office on the main floor of the Independent Media Center that they couldn’t all be held for delivery. Some B2P volunteers therefore came back on the next day, March 17, to finish the job.
To volunteers like Ann, the Mega-Packing Day was a little like the Dolly Parton song, “9 to 5,” except that Dolly Parton “was referring to young female office workers, rather than older women filling and hauling book boxes while standing on a concrete floor for an entire day.”
Priscilla Christians, another volunteer, wrote in an email that “we all had a sense of purpose and knew our time was limited before the lockdown.” B2P has since closed its doors until May 15 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, a decision that Priscilla explained that they regretted “in view of the need for reading and study material by those incarcerated, but there was no real choice.” Priscilla added that “we hope it’s temporary and are eager to be back in operation when it’s safe.”
UC Books to Prisoners is an Urbana, Illinois-based project providing books to Illinois inmates at no cost by mail as well as through two county jail libraries which they operate.
To learn more about B2P, including how to volunteer, you can visit their website: http://www.books2prisoners.org/.