Textbooks aid learning for prison inmates

Each year, the campus bookstores reject mass quantities of books because they are the wrong edition or a class no longer uses them. Rather than selling the rejected books on eBay or Amazon, students have an option that is a bit more unknown — donating the books to prisoners throughout the state.

Through UC Books to Prisoners, a volunteer organization that is a project of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, people can donate books that would normally collect dust on an old bookshelf or be sold for pennies elsewhere.

The organization meets three times a week on Tuesday evenings and Thursday and Saturday afternoons to organize books, fill requests and send packages. Prisoners can write letters to UC Books to Prisoners with requests for random books or books from a particular author or genre. UC Books to Prisoners receives about 75 requests from prisoners per week, and prisoners can receive four books every four months, said volunteer Jane Mohraz.

Once books are sent to a prisoner, they are filed in a computer to ensure that the same prisoner does not receive the same book twice.

“I like getting to read the letters,” said Annie Peterson, an incoming graduate student in Library and Information Science. “I like it most when they ask for fiction or short stories that I know I can find something they might like or might be able to discover a new author from. Or just to be able to be send them something to read because I can imagine time would go so slowly if you had nothing to read.”

The books are sent to inmates in any Illinois prison and become the inmate’s personal property, while inmates in county jails must use lending libraries to read the donated books. The Champaign County Sheriff’s Office houses libraries at the two local jails and are staffed by volunteers from the community, public libraries and officials from the Sheriff’s Office. Volunteers at the jails keep books organized in the libraries as well as helping prisoners choose books to read from the selection.

“When we first started, the downtown jail had a shelf of romance novels,” Mohraz said. “And that was the extent of the library for the prisoners in the county jail. Obviously those weren’t very wanted. We began working with the sheriff’s department and the social worker at the county jail to get them to agree to let us provide both books and staff for a library.”

UC Books to Prisoners began in 2004 to provide prisoners reading material in order to make the days go faster. To date, UC Books to Prisoners has donated 35,258 books to 5,643 inmates, according to the project’s Web site.

“What (the inmates) really wanted was something to do while they were in prison,” Mohraz said. “They wanted to read. They wanted something to stimulate their minds.”

Located in the basement of the Independent Media Center, UC Books to Prisoners funds itself by selling books in semi-annual book sales as well as on Amazon. The organization spends about $800 per month in postage costs in addition to the fees it pays to rent space at the Independent Media Center, Mohraz said.

Because of restrictions placed on prisoners in federal penitentiaries, the volunteers at UC Books to Prisoners must check all requested books for nudity and other prohibited topics before mailing packages to inmates. The books that are not fit to send to prisoners are sold in the book sales or online.

The most requested book from UC Books to Prisoners is the dictionary, Mohraz said. Because there is always a lack of dictionaries donated in comparison to the high demand, UC Books to Prisoners purchases extra dictionaries to send to inmates.

Books can be donated at one of five locations including the Independent Media Center, That’s Rentertainment, 516 E. John St. or Caffe Paradiso, 801 S. Lincoln Ave.

Volunteers can work at the Independent Media Center reading letters from prisoners, selecting books to send, shipping the books to prisons throughout the state or coordinating donation drives and fundraisers. “Thank you” letters from the prisoners are kept at the organization’s office for volunteers to read at outings and to remind the volunteers of how grateful the inmates are of their work.

“In the summer, we don’t get too many volunteers, so we tend to get backed up,” Mohraz said. “We have a lot of students from Parkland and the University of Illinois. We also have some from (University) High. This is a really nice organization because the age group of volunteers goes from high school students all the way up. We have one woman who is 80 years old, and she is so diligent. There are a lot of different ages and a lot of different interests.”