New nonprofit RSO accepts used books


Ben Tschetter

Madeleine Brown, president of the Books to Prisoners RSO, helps Renee and Neal Brown find books at the group’s book sale at the Independent Media Center on Nov. 3. The RSO, which started as a local nonprofit organization, aims to provide incarcerated individuals with access to reading material.

By Ciera Johnson, Contributing Writer

The UC Books to Prisoners organization was initially just an independent, nonprofit organization which operated within the Independent Media Center in Urbana.

Sanha Kim, junior in Engineering, and Madeleine Brown, junior in LAS, both started out as volunteers for the organization. They eventually made an RSO subset of the organization.

It’s a club dedicated to providing free information, through books, to the incarcerated. All of these books are from donations.

The volunteer coordinator, Rachel Ramussen, approached both Kim and Brown to ask them if they had any interest in starting an RSO to get students on campus more involved with the organization.

“We spoke to Rachel, who is our volunteer coordinator, and she wanted a way for students to become more involved. I think we’re a really good resource to help young bodies who are able to move stuff and get things that maybe some of the older volunteers can’t do,” Brown said.

Starting the RSO would also benefit students around campus and fulfill the needs of those who have an interest in social justice and access.

“(There are a lot) of students here that are interested in things like this,” Brown said. “It’s a really cool way for students to get involved, and I think it’s a really cool organization for people to know about.”

When starting the organization here on campus, Kim and Brown struggled with how it would identify itself on campus.

“The main challenge was figuring out what role we wanted to serve on campus,” Kim said. “A lot of the RSO can be classified as political, volunteering or a social RSO. (Trying to figure out) if we wanted to focus on the message of free information to the incarcerated population, or do we just want to be an RSO that just provides volunteering services?”

Nevertheless, their experience has been positive thus far.

“It’s still very new. This is our first semester as an RSO. We’ve had much higher attendance at our volunteer sessions (as a result of being an RSO),” Brown said.

The Books to Prisoners RSO holds volunteering sessions every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and every Thursday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at the Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway Ave., in Urbana.

For students, faculty, staff and community members who may not be able to attend the volunteering sessions, there are other ways to get involved.

“There’s a donation drop box in the English Building … the Lincoln Square mall, Common Ground and we have another dropbox also in the Urbana post office,” Brown said. “That’s a really easy simple way to be involved and just kinda contribute.”

Because the Books to Prisoners organization strives to meet the academic interests of those who are incarcerated, all types of reading and educational materials are accepted.

“At the end of the semester, if you can’t sell your textbooks for buybacks, a lot of times we’ll take those because there is an interest especially in math and sciences,” Brown said.

Even though the incarcerated population may be generalized, stereotyped and talked about in a negative way, Brown believes the program’s mission helps with the rehabilitation process.

“One of the only ways to learn and recover is through education,” Brown said. “I think that what we do by providing literary materials, education materials, help those people — the incarcerated population — recover from whatever has happened to them, from whatever they have done.”

When providing these services to prisoners in the U.S., there are certain guidelines that must be followed.

In addition to not being able to pack more than five books or three pounds worth of books, Kim offers other strict guidelines given by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“When we are publicly in the press that we sort of (stay away from) any sideline bias about IDOC,” Kim said. “Our purpose is just to be a third party to provide incarcerated people with books … other prisons, however, do sort of limit the type of books that we can send. Centralia and one other (do) not like hardcover books, so we try to work around that.”

While serving the prison population, it is vital to protect the identity of those who volunteer and ensure there are no instances of extended communication beyond providing books.

“We’re told not to put our full names at the end, we have a (letter that we write back to them) once we finish making up their order. The letter that we write back (is) already written out. So we’re just rewriting a prescribed message back to them. There’s not a lot of back-and-forth,” Brown said.

William Morond is a graduate student at the University who is studying physics. He has been volunteering with the organization for four years.

Since being with the organization, Morond has realized  having access to information is a luxury often taken for granted.

“Books are something that we all take … for granted,” Morond said. “Especially us (UI) students, who have access not only to the internet of course but (also to) one of the largest libraries in the world … you really see how valuable they are when you see people who have limited access to them.”

As the University is dedicated to service and philanthropy, the Books to Prisoners Program is a great way to get involved.

“If anyone is interested in a volunteering opportunity like this, or just helping out prisoners in any way possible, I think that this a very good way to help,” Kim said.

The Books to Prisoners program is equally beneficial for both the incarcerated and volunteers involved. This RSO will continue to grow and prosper in fulfilling its mission to aid in the rehabilitation of the incarcerated.

“It’s unbelievable that they can cherish these things that we give to them, and it could help them maybe make their life a little better,” Brown said.

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