Community gets together to help prisoners

Patricia Mathy (right), senior in LAS, and Molly Schmidt, sophomore in LAS, organize books for sale at the Independent Media Center in Urbana on Thursday. Erica Magda

Patricia Mathy (right), senior in LAS, and Molly Schmidt, sophomore in LAS, organize books for sale at the Independent Media Center in Urbana on Thursday. Erica Magda

By Grace Rebekah Kenney

A diverse group of Illini students, retirees, high school students and others are volunteering to help a branch of the community that is often forgotten.

Books to Prisoners is a nonprofit organization that works to not only improve the lives of prisoners in jail, but also to educate the community on how they can better help their neglected members.

The Champaign-Urbana chapter of Books to Prisoners began in 2004 when one student took an opportunity to send books to prisoners in jail. The group has since grown to around 300 members. These volunteers work together by shipping books to inmates in both local and statewide jails, organizing book and money donations, publishing a magazine of prisoner art and writing, promoting community awareness and working in the jail libraries.

Inmates send letters requesting books and volunteers respond to them. Volunteer Deb Sanderson explained how the inmates and those in the outer community are able to interact.

“This is a volunteer experience where a volunteer can get an instant connection,” Sanderson said. “You have a handwritten letter by a human being and you see his plight, you hear his words, you realize his needs and you immediately respond and do something for that person.”

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Often times, people are hesitant to volunteer in groups associated with prison because they feel it could be dangerous. However, one thing that volunteers learn while interacting with inmates is that they are people, too.

Volunteer Susan Bruce often helps out at the jail libraries and has learned a lot from her work experiences.

“I’ve been amazed at how diverse prisoners’ interests are,” Bruce said. “I think their requests defy stereotypes. They ask for poetry, dictionaries, history, conspiracy books, novels and political science.”

Not only do volunteers help and identify with those in jail, but they also obtain valuable skills. Sarah Hjeltness, graduate student, said working for Books to Prisoners helps her gain library experience and exposure to the issues affecting the Champaign-Urbana area.

“It’s really helped me to get to know the needs of our community,” Hjeltness said. “A lot of times when you’re on campus you can kind of be blind to what’s going on in the larger community.”

Despite obtaining experiences, community involvement is still the top issue.

“The inmates are going to be coming back into our community,” Sanderson said. “The more we can do to help them be educated and better themselves and learn more while they are incarcerated makes it better when they come out so that they have more skills and a higher reading level.”