National Conference for Prison Book Projects Held in Urbana-Champaign

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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 inmates. 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, professors, and community
members, 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
1500 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 inmates. 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 1962 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
If you would like to volunteer there are work days on
Tuesday (7-9 pm), Thursday (2-4 pm), Saturday (2-4 pm),
and Sunday (1-3 pm).

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