From Boredom To Books: New Library at Stateville Prison

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Barbara Kessel, Tracy Engelson, and Jamie Storm meet at Books to Prisoners to set up library at Stateville

Barbara Kessel, Tracy Engelson, and Jamie Storm meet at Books to Prisoners to set up a library at Stateville

Three R’s (Reading to Reduce Recidivism) and BTP partnered to establish a new library at the Northern District Reception Center, the first stop for many newly sentenced males with time to serve in a state of Illinois prison. A state of-the-art facility built within the last ten years on the grounds of Stateville prison in Joliet, this center has 30,000 men pass through every year, most to be evaluated according to their crime, their sentence and their history, and then assigned to one of the 26 adult prisons incarcerating 49,000 people. Other men are brought to the reception center from around the state to be taken to various courts for parole violations or testimony. The average length of time spent in reception is one to two months, with no TV, no books or magazines, no recreation, just cell sitting.

Ms. Tracy Engelson, the Superintendent of NRC believed that reading material would help the men pass the time and lighten their stress if she could just find some free books. She reached out to Three R’s through the John Howard Association. Three R’s is an organization of volunteers with a center in Urbana and five other collection centers in Illinois. It has provided books directly to twenty of our state’s 26 prison libraries over its nearly five years of existence, yet never knew about the Northern Reception Center, simply because they had neither library nor a librarian.

Books to Prisoners, housed at the Independent Media Center is ten years old and has mailed 100,000 books to 10,000 prisoners in Illinois who have written letters requesting the books or types of books they want. Known as BtP (, this mostly volunteer organization was not really aware of the Northern Reception Center because most of the men there are not encouraged to write/receive letters due to their temporary status.

Books to Prisoners and Three R’s are sister organizations so decided to pool their resources for this special occasion. They were excited to seed a library in a “book desert”, which would contain all the categories requested by the men behind bars we both serve, and only in paperback, the requirement of NRC at Stateville.

The woman who made it all possible, left her post as Superintendent in the charge of an assistant and drove a small passenger transport bus from Joliet, Illinois to Champaign-Urbana on the cold morning of February 10 where she met lots of happy BtP and Three R’s volunteers who helped her load up the van/bus with 15 boxes of boxes. Tracy Engelson drove back to Joliet and in two weeks, she wrote to say the library was sorted and circulating:

“The library is going good so far. It has been running for about three days…so we are still getting the word out.  So far, we haven’t noticed not having any requested books. Again, I thank you for all your help in making this a success. There is such a big need in the place…that really never goes away…but this surely helps.”

Three R’s is working to keep the Stateville Reception Center stocked with books, which wear out after multiple readings. There are plans for Phil Fiscella of Three R’s to deliver pallets of books graciously donated by from Champaign-based Human Kinetics on strength conditioning, fitness, and sports. Another of Three R’s state chapters, the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago, has begun collecting paperbacks for them. If you want to be part of this effort, contact us at our website

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