UC Books to Prisoners changes lives one book at a time

Tomorrow, UC Books to Prisoners, an Urbana-based project, will host a book sale benefiting incarcerated individuals in Illinois.

Rachel Rasmussen, the program coordinator, said Books to Prisoners first emerged in 2004 when a group of people took it upon themselves to answer a few prisoner letters that requested books.

The group was quickly joined by others who organized it as a working group at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.

The first volunteers developed a database to keep track of the different restrictions of prisons in Illinois, fundraise for a shipping budget and practice inviting the public to volunteer to select books according to prisoner requests.

Rasmussen said that in 2009, Books to Prisoners approached the sheriff’s office and were given permission to set up lending libraries in Champaign county’s two jails. Today, they are a community-driven, volunteer-run non-profit organization.

“We hold two book sales a year where we sell those books that are either surplus or not likely to be requested by prisoners,” Rasmussen said. “We are good stewards of all the books donated to us. What does not go into the prisons is sold to raise money to ship books into prisons. ”

There are donation bins in the lobby of the IMC, the English building, near Parkland library, and soon, the Lincoln Square Mall. For large donations of more than five boxes, people can contact the organization via its website for help.

The community-powered volunteer organization provides several easy ways to get involved. No experience is required, and volunteers can create their own schedules.

Volunteers interact with incarcerated people by reading their letters, selecting books from the organization’s collection of donated materials and sending books in response to people’s requests.

Volunteers can also manage volunteers and coordinate book donations, fundraising and various other education, outreach and technical tasks.

Rasmussen said there are public volunteer sessions to help with the organization’s mission to send books to prisons on Tuesday evenings from 7 – 9 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 2 – 4 pm

“Another way to be involved is to learn our most highly requested books and donate them,” Rasmussen said. eg, how to draw, think about money, basic introductions to what’s involved in starting a business. People should feel free to contact me for a list of high-demand books. ”

For people over 21, there are also opportunities to work with the Jail Library Program. Since the pandemic began, access to the jails has been restricted, but volunteers are allowed to bring in additional books when no occupants are there.

Josephine Duffy, also known as JD, who graduated from the University in December, began volunteering with the program in the fall of 2019.

She got involved with Books to Prisoners when she came across her booth on Quad Day her sophomore year. She had previously heard of the organization through a band she used to listen to because it fundraised for its local Books to Prisoners group.

Her favorite part of the program is answering letters.

“Through letters,” she said, “you get a small but meaningful connection with incarcerated people. The notes of gratitude written in many letters always leave an impact on me. I enjoy the hunt of trying to find the perfect books to meet their requests. ”

She is currently away from Champaign on an internship.

“One of the things I’m most looking forward to once I return is getting back to volunteering with Books to Prisoners,” Duffy said. “There is so much wrong with the American prison system and the work done by B2P is incredibly important in supplying incarcerated people with resources they deserve. I’m grateful to play a part in it. ”

In August, Duffy will move to Columbus, Ohio, to obtain her master’s degree in natural resources & environmental science from Ohio State University.

She hopes to find a similar Books to Prisoners organization and continue her volunteer work.

For more information, or to get involved with the program, email [email protected].

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