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Local book program supplies Illinois prisoners with hope, education

By Jessica Bourque / For CU-CitizenAccess "” In a stuffy, dimly lit basement located in downtown Urbana, Ella Kinzie sits hunched over at a table, a pile of unopened letters by her side. She is hard at work, doing a job similar to Santa Claus's, reading over wish lists and turning them into realities.

She sends a cookbook to Cristina, who wants to learn how to bake cupcakes, a Spanish- English dictionary to Alejandro, who longs to speak better English, and an advertising book to Maurice, who wishes to start his own business one day.  

"Even the most ordinary requests are special to me because it's like these few books are going to make such a difference in that person's quality of life," said Kinzie.

If Kinzie really were Santa Claus, all of her recipients would fall on the naughty list.

She is one of many devoted volunteers who work for the Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners program, a donation-based operation that sends reading material to prison inmates across the state of Illinois.

In 2002, Illinois legislators took away funding for books and libraries in Illinois prisons, and while all prisons are required to have law libraries, they are usually poorly tended and outdated. Several prisons lack circulation libraries, leaving prisoners without material as basic as a newspaper to read. Books to Prisoners recognizes this need and does its best to fulfill it.

"It's insane"¦we get letters all the time saying "˜I need this' or "˜I don't have access to this' so we know the need is there"¦These people really need this outlet," said Sarah Ross, a volunteer and coordinator of a sister program to Books to Prisoners called 3 R's. The 3 R's program, standing for reading reduces recidivism, aims to "have prison libraries "˜adopted' by small groups in nearby population centers. In coordination with the librarian at each prison, these local groups will collect targeted books for donation to the prisons," as said on their Web site.

Books to Prisoners is a program with humble beginnings, started by a couple of people who sent books to some of their friends on a regular basis.

"When it started they only had one bookshelf and a few people answering letters. Now it's grown into this program where we have a whole work group answering letters"¦we get somewhere around 300 requests each month, and that's a low estimate," said Samantha Copeland, the program's outreach coordinator.

Since the program started in 2004, Books to Prisoners has sent out nearly 52,000 books to more than 8,000 inmates. Of the thousands of requests made, none are overlooked. Copeland said each request is read by a volunteer who considers what books will work best for that particular prisoner.

"We are donation based, so we don't always have every book that is requested. Sometimes a volunteer has to send books they think will suit that prisoner's interests. There is a lot of thought that goes into each package," said Copeland.

Volunteers are also given the option to send a letter to the inmates along with their package. Copeland said that sometimes the letters are more important than the books because "we are sometimes the only correspondence these inmates have."

The volunteer's consideration doesn't go unnoticed. Letters of appreciation overflow from the bulletin boards that line the walls at the program's headquarters.

"I am so grateful for the package I received last week! The books were just what I needed"¦it was like Stacy [a project volunteer] read my mind. Thank you so much for taking the time to care about me," wrote one woman serving time in a Joliet prison.

Every kind of text, from Qurans to romance novels, is requested by inmates. The Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners website lists GED prep, poetry, addiction and recovery, and guides to learning a trade as some of the most asked for topics. However, Copeland said dictionaries are in the highest demand.

"Dictionaries are by far the most requested"¦The theory I've heard is that it is because Malcolm X read a dictionary while in prison. I think it's sort of an inspirational thing for people," said Copeland.

Getting these books to the prisoners is no easy task. Copeland said a number of strict regulations have to be met before any of their packages can make it through prison walls.

"A lot of prisons have restrictions on whether it can be hardback or not. We are not allowed to send any spiral bound ones, and we are also not allowed to send any magazines," said Copeland.

Even if all the requirements are met, opposition can still come from prison wardens who often think letting these books in can be a security risk. Ross said they have had problems in the past with guards using their packages as leverage and making prisoners pay for books, which are all free, in order to keep them.

"You know, we said to ourselves that is really effed up because most prisoners don't have any money"¦after hearing about all these problems we made a point to make a meeting with the department of corrections," said Ross.

The program now has a working relationship with the Department of Corrections where their packages are allowed in and given directly to prisoners.

"We needed them to give us permission and they needed us because, you know, they suck so bad," said Ross jokingly.

Ross said it is important for people to recognize the impact these books can have.

"A lot of these people are wondering "˜what am I going to do when I get out of here?' They are looking to better themselves, so sending them trade books and books on writing resumes can be incredibly useful," said Ross. 

This is echoed in prisoner's letters. As one prisoner wrote, "I want to start my life new. I want to equip myself with the right tools to help myself and my family. I don't see why I shouldn't be educating myself while I'm in here."  

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