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Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners returns with book sales

This weekend, for the first time in over two years, Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners will be hosting in-person book sales. Better yet? They have three times the amount of books to offer for sale than they usually do. The sale will be running Saturday, October 16th and Sunday, October 17th at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. The center is located downtown Urbana, next to the post office.

Saturday’s sale will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while Sunday’s will go from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday’s sale will include a Bag Sale from 4-5 p.m., as well as a 50/50 raffle. Books of various genres, including young adult and children’s books, will be available for purchase. With the books priced at only 50 cents to $2, the proceeds of the sale go towards the mission of the organization.

The Urbana-based project has been providing books to incarcerated individuals in Illinois at no cost by mail since 2004. The organization’s volunteers read letters and book requests from the incarcerated, and select books from the organization’s wide collection of donated books, then mail them out. This volunteer-based organization has sent over 164,961 books to 22,889 incarcerated individuals since its foundation. They are the largest resource of its kind in the state of Illinois.

“We hope to improve literacy and post incarceration outcomes for people by supporting self-education,” says longtime UC Books for Prisoners volunteer Elizabeth Abraham. “We also strive to educate the public about issues around incarceration and encourage support for education of those in Illinois prisons.”

Abraham has been volunteering with the program for 16 years, and has a professional background as a corrections librarian. She has seen firsthand how reading material impacts inmates’ lives.

Considering that 95% of inmates eventually get released back into society,  as reported by the US Department of Justice, this program encourages them to improve their literacy skills and expand their knowledge set before they return home to their families and communities.

On average, prisoners read from 17 to 31 books a year. The program’s most requested books? The English dictionary and GED educational materials.

Studies show that correctional health care is essential toward rehabilitation, and the self-education that these books provide are a crucial part of that. These books can also bring some small comfort in the isolating prison environment.

A handwritten note in black ink on a piece of lined notebook paper. Photo by Julie McClure.

Photo from Books to Prisoners Facebook page. 

Abraham says that the program often receives letters stating that they have helped incarcerated people become literate. Some write that UC Books for Prisoners is the only mail they receive and that the books from strangers provide them with hope.

“You people are a God-send to prisoners,” writes one inmate in Danville. “So often, we are forgotten. Your service of books aids in our rehabilitation, which prepares us to have a positive impact on the communities a lot of us helped to destroy.”

“Please send me books that help me know how to treat others, how to talk to people who are angry all the time, [and] how to be a better person,” writes another inmate.

Abraham shares one particular situation that really stuck with her — helping a fellow corrections librarian acquire books related to hospice care.

“A group of incarcerated men wanted to learn how they could provide hospice for fellow inmates,” she said. “They needed books to learn how to do it. I can’t imagine taking on such a task as a do it yourself project, and scrounging books to make it happen. It goes against the stereotype many of us have about prisons and prisoners. “

Since 2001, circulation libraries in Illinois have had no money budgeted to purchase new books, meaning that incarcerated people must rely on family members to send them reading material or utilize the services provided by UC Books for Prisoners.

Those involved in the planning of this upcoming weekend’s book sales expect a big turnout, and have 140 community members pitching in to help the cause. Proceeds and donations made toward the organization help pay for mail postage, their rented space, purchasing books that are requested but are not yet donated, and to keep a part-time employee on staff. UC Books for Prisoners is always looking for volunteers to help with a variety of tasks, and no experience is required.

“The emotion I most often sense from incarcerated people is loneliness,” says Abraham. “There is something special, dare I say holy, about giving someone a book.”

Please keep in mind that UC Books For Prisoners only serves those currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons in Illinois. To learn more information or to make a donation to the organization, please visit their website or their Facebook page.

Top photo from Books to Prisoners Facebook page.

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