UC Books to Prisoners supports education for the incarcerated, holds book sale 

By Aidan Sadovi, Assistant News Editor

It all starts with letters. In a neat script on carefully creased paper, one incarcerated writer makes sure to cast a wide net for their request to ensure they get something they like. Film and TV. Cooking. Photography. How-to guides. Philosophy. Math.

In this basement crammed with bookshelves, there’s nearly as much heavy reading as there is light. One soon to be mailed stack of letters is buttressed by a glossy blue textbook on electric circuits. Bibles in various languages, including Greek, are neatly stacked together. 

Another incarcerated individual, who writes of more than a decade spent as a tradesman, asks for trade books — commercial preferred, but residential will do, they say. The prison’s supply of HVAC and mechanic manuals they’ve already consumed are  outdated. 

“They’ll have libraries in prison,” said Rachel Rasmussen, UC Books to Prisoners program and volunteer coordinator. Technology, however, changes. “(The writer) doesn’t need the stuff that came out in the ’90s,” Rasmussen says. 

UC Books to Prisoners is a working group of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center that works to send books, most of which are donated, to incarcerated individuals throughout Illinois — free of charge.

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    To date, the organization has sent 174,548 books to 23,894 individuals in custody in Illinois since 2004. They also maintain a lending library in the Champaign County Jail and supply books to the Juvenile Detention Center.

    The letters from incarcerated people requesting their desired books come by the hundreds every month. 

    While touching the spines of the organization’s highly coveted collection of textbooks, study materials and dictionaries, the latter being the most requested book of all, Rasmussen called education “the most important intervention in a life of crime.”

    “So, yes, it’s about giving books to prisoners, but it’s also about helping the whole community understand that we have a large part of our neighbors 45 miles from here, in a prison, and most of them are coming home,” Rasmussen said. 

    “Who do you want to come home?” she continued. “I’d like (for) those who got a chance to study and learn pass their GED. You know, explore some career paths and stuff, too.”

    Rasmussen, referencing what she called “abominable” health care in prisons, said prisoners also often request books that help them take care of their bodies.

    Rasmussen, who volunteered at Danville Correctional Center for five years, emphasized the humanity of those imprisoned. 

    “I worked with magnificent (people) that are incarcerated,” Rasmussen said. “They’re human beings.”

    Upstairs, even more books were splayed and stacked on tables from one end of the high-ceilinged room to the other. People came in and out and flipped through volumes before purchasing.  

    The organization, in partnership with the connected Books to Prisoners RSO on campus, sold tables of books that aren’t requested by prisoners, are in poor condition or that they have enough of on April 8 at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.

    This book sale, which happens twice a year during the fall and spring, is done in order to “bring the community out” and raise funds, because UC Books to Prisoners is a nonprofit that encounters a lack of storage and a need to unload books every six months. 

    University students, according to Rasmussen, comprise at least 75% of the organization’s volunteer labor force. 

    “We couldn’t do this without their labor,” she said. 

    Syd Mark, vice president of the Books to Prisoners RSO, said each sale has been “amazing.”

    “It’s really just a community effort with all the volunteers, whether it’s adults in the Urbana-Champaign community (or) if it’s a lot of undergrad students coming together,” Mark said. “I mean, just this past Thursday, we were hauling boxes of books from downstairs that we’ve collected over to these tables and kind of getting the magic running.”

    Rasmussen described a line of volunteers snaking up a set of spiral stairs, passing books hand-by-hand in preparation for the sale.

    The RSO is also hoping to host talks by previously incarcerated individuals as well as more events that “engage the community.”

    “We also are looking to have guest speakers and probably previously incarcerated guest speakers to talk about what it means to be in the mass incarceration system,” Mark said. 

    UC Books to Prisoners tells incarcerated people to write once every three months. The Illinois Department of Corrections limits prisoners to five books per shipment and Books to Prisoners limit shipments to three and a half pounds. 

    Although restrictions can vary by individual prison and whether the institutions are lower or higher security, IDOC has restrictions on what book topics are allowed. These include, but are not limited to, not allowing books about tattooing, that promote hate, about assembling weapons and with nudity, according to Rasmussen. The organization also does not send books in poor condition, especially because they can raise suspicion that the book has been tampered with. UC Books to Prisoners makes sure to clean all books they receive.

    In 2019, Danville Correctional Center in Eastern Illinois came under scrutiny for removing hundreds of books from their library after IDOC found “racially motivated” editorial cartoons that were used as references in a book about the incarceration of Black people, prompting prison staff to search the library and remove more books they found to have “controversial” content. 

    The initial book and others removed were being used as part of an educational program for prisoners led by a University professor. 

    According to a report from Illinois newsroom in 2019, IDOC spent less than $300 on books for prisoners in 2017, although previously the department would spend “three quarters of a million dollars per year on books in the early 2000s.” The IDOC director pointed to budget choices made by state lawmakers for the lack of funding at the time.

    Back in the basement, Rasmussen unfolded a larger letter where one incarcerated person said they’ve been transferred to a different prison without warning, and their books didn’t follow them. They wrote the organization a week before the transfer asking for more books, but they were moved before a response could come, they say. 

    Not to worry, because according to Rasmussen, UC Books to Prisoners keeps close track of orders, and this requester won’t miss theirs. 

    “In a world of lackluster support,” they write, “you are doing what’s appreciated.” 


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