Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners’ Mission to Bring Books (and Bibliophilia) Behind Bars

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When it comes to helping people make a fresh start after incarceration and avoid returning to prison, few approaches are as effective and vital as education. Many people who wind up in the prison system do not have enough literacy or education to succeed in traditional career paths, and it has been demonstrated that inmates who participate in educational opportunities in prison have a significantly lower likelihood of recidivism than those who do not. For this reason, a supply of books, learning opportunities, and support for education are essential services in the correctional system, but funding for these is usually scarce and an easy target in budget cuts. To bridge the gaps, some communities have volunteer programs that supply resources, leadership, and labor.

One such group is Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners (B2P), a volunteer-run organization that receives and fulfills requests for books from adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons throughout the state of Illinois. B2P builds awareness and support of literacy in prisons by engaging the community in volunteering, book sales, and book donation. Volunteers get to engage directly with letters from inmates and see firsthand how impactful and needed their work is.

Our eponymous mission sounds simple, but it takes a complex, coordinated effort to successfully usher a book along its odyssey from donation bin to recipient. The abridged version: B2P constantly maintains a large inventory of mostly donated books and pamphlets. When an inmate writes to request materials, the letter is processed and passed to another set of volunteers, who select a set of books that best fulfills the request from the available inventory, within certain restrictions. A volunteer writes a note to the recipient, and the books (now referred to as an order filled) are cleaned, double-checked, packaged, and sent to the recipient’s prison. In the prison mail room, the package is inspected for appropriate content before the books are delivered to their recipient.

As a volunteer with B2P for the past 10 months, I’ve been fascinated to learn how the operations are carried out. For further insight on the sometimes surprising challenges in the process, I interviewed Rachel Rasmussen, B2P’s Program Coordinator, and Susan Hill, a long-time B2P volunteer who helps with many of the behind-the-scenes tasks.

The B2P team navigates logistical obstacles with each order as we do our best to satisfy the needs of the recipients, the prisons, and B2P’s own resources. To ensure that B2P can budget for shipping and demand, parcels must meet weight requirements (generally under 3.5 pounds), and each prisoner may receive an order from B2P every three months. Some prisons do not allow hardback books, and everyone is limited to only one English and one Spanish dictionary per five years. Additionally, some prisons have explicit restrictions on content. To keep track of all that, we maintain a record of each person’s order history and place of incarceration, which also allows us to make sure that new orders fit the readers’ preferences and don’t accidentally duplicate titles already sent to the prisoner.

The books themselves are subject to scrutiny by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Books entering a prison must be clean and in good condition, and they must avoid certain topics. “The precise restrictions vary somewhat by prison,” Rachel explains, “but the restricted subjects are typically those that might exacerbate conflicts or promote violence within the prison.” To comply, B2P screens its inventory for materials that promote violence, hatred, or intolerance of others; books on weapons, fighting techniques, or tattooing; and sexual content involving BDSM, bondage, explicit penetration, or pornographic images. “IDOC does not release their current list of restricted titles,” says Susan. “We think this is because titles go on and off the list as circumstances change.” It can sometimes be hard to determine whether a book is acceptable, and occasionally, a sent book may be confiscated by the prison mail room. While we do not always know whether the books are distributed to their recipients, Susan says, “the letters we receive make it clear that most are.

The distribution hurdles are the easy part. According to Susan, “the biggest challenge is getting books that our readers want.” While B2P relies primarily on books donated by individuals and businesses in the area, some materials are in such high demand that they need to be specially purchased to meet the need. B2P uses some of its budget to buy dictionaries and re-entry guides in bulk. Occasionally, a generous volunteer will purchase books out of their own pocket to fulfill a special request.

Popular materials include dictionaries, legal help, business startup advice, workout guides (especially for workouts without exercise equipment), cooking and nutrition, self-help, educational workbooks, religious texts, art instruction, biographies, and many genres of fiction such as thrillers, sci-fi, and urban fiction. There are some popular subjects and more specialized items for which the supply is lacking. Books on fitness, drawing, and certain fiction genres are capped at one or two books per order. Non-English and large-print reading materials are scarce. Literary fiction, mysteries, and fantasies featuring LGBTQ+ characters are often requested, but, Susan laments, “we seldom have anything to send. We need more fantasy series written for adults, and we need the [whole] series. We sometimes get only one volume in a series; this can be frustrating for a reader if we send this and cannot continue to fill the series in his next order.” Especially coveted items include complete series, which B2P rubber-bands together so they can be sent to one reader, and editions of successful series that are published in a single volume. As for format, “Mass market paperbacks are much preferred. Hardcovers add weight, and prisoners do not have a lot of storage space.” Even so, for sought-after materials, B2P is happy to accept and send anything donors can find.

Susan, an avid reader herself, is sensitive to those needs, and she hopes book donors will consider the gaps and try to fill them. Susan often buys requested books that are not usually donated, and she gives special attention to people with long sentences. “Life without engaging reading would be torture for me,” she says. “I work at B2P so I can see that readers in prison can get books they enjoy.”

In addition to direct request fulfillment, B2P has been directly and indirectly involved in many related projects over the years. B2P created lending library programs within the two jails in Champaign County, which have been run by our volunteers since 2009. We also raise funds and community awareness, while simultaneously refreshing our inventory, by holding biannual used book sales. Thanks to a grant, for a time B2P published a zine to share poetry, stories, and art submitted by inmates. Rachel, whose role includes coordinating the B2P volunteers, says that many of our volunteers undertake related projects independently where they see a need.

Many of these volunteer efforts in the prisons have been put on hold because of pandemic protocols, and COVID-19 has also reduced the ability of many long-term, older volunteers to remain involved with B2P. Now, as the pandemic eases, we are making a push to bring relatively new volunteers into the behind-the-scenes processes, and we look forward to a revitalization of our efforts on behalf of the inmates of Illinois. If you are interested in volunteering with us, making donations, or attending our next book sale, please visit our website at www.books2prisoners.org.

Katherine Langdon is a conservator of art objects and archaeological materials. She is a former resident of Urbana, where she volunteered with Books to Prisoners, and she runs a book discussion group on racial justice topics.

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