Saturday morning, a small but dedicated group of students gathered at Ithaca College to wrap books in brown paper bags. It almost looked like the students were preparing for Christmas – and that’s exactly how it will feel to the inmates in New York State prisons who receive those books. Saturday’s gathering constituted the first packing session of the Ithaca College Books Thru Bars program, which works to send books to prisoners throughout the state.

“In its truest form, this process is very simple, but the impact is massive,” said Don Austin, who is the group’s advisor. Basically, the process was that each of the 20 or so participants opened letters from prisoners, looked for books in the requested genre, wrapped two or three relevant titles, included the necessary form in the package, and addressed it appropriately.Sorting Through Books for Inmates

Part of the reason the process went so smoothly was that most of the group’s leaders had participated in a previous Books Thru Bars program. Housed at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center and run by Jurden Alexander, the Ithaca Books Thru Bars program existed until December of last year, at which point Alexander decided to step down and disband the group. Fortunately, there was a cadre of students willing to take over.

Rachel Cohen, the current group’s president, explained how IC students got involved: “Last year, I signed up for a service Saturday event, which is run by Don [Austin]. I signed up for the Books Thru Bars program in Ithaca, and so I participated in the program, and it was my first time doing it. They said it was going to be shut down, but I really enjoyed doing it, so I found a few other people who were really passionate about it.”

Along with fellow students Kevin Walker, Samantha Holek, and Irma Perez, Cohen set about figuring out how to found a Books Thru Bars program at Ithaca College. The students spent all of last semester collecting information from Alexander and organizing their fledgling group.

Although Walker dialed back his involvement after last semester, the other founders stepped into leadership roles, so Holek is the vice president and Perez is the treasurer. Later, Elba Morales got involved and became the group’s secretary.

Holek summed up why she thinks the program is important when she said, “Our mission statement is that we don’t think incarcerated individuals should not have the right to literacy. I enjoy reading. I think everyone should have the right to do it.”

Spreading that right to read has been difficult and time-consuming work, according to Cohen. She said, “It’s nonstop because there’s always something to do—checking the email, sending out reminders, checking the mailbox, making sure we can get all the materials. It’s just a never-ending list of stuff to do.” She added, “It’s been a lot of work but it’s really rewarding.”

Fortunately, basic funding is one thing the group hasn’t had to worry about, as they were able to obtain money for postage through the college’s student government association. Austin said, “We are very blessed in terms of resource availability. We could use more human resources, more knowledge, more innovation.” Cohen said that non-student were welcome to participate in the group: “The more the merrier.” (Anyone interested in participating can email booksthrubars@gmail.com.)

Austin said that currently the group is looking to partner with a local organization for book storage and possibly for combined mailings. He said, “We are actively looking for a partner, looking for an organization that has space to store books.” The group is exploring the possibility of a partnership with the New Roots Charter School, but nothing is finalized yet.

Finding a home for the program’s growing book collection will help the group meet prisoners’ needs more effectively, but Austin pointed out that the program isn’t just beneficial to prisoners. He said, “It’s a two-way street, I think. It’s very valuable to people who are incarcerated but it’s also a very valuable to the students who participate.” He continued, “My hope is that they see people who are incarcerated as human beings, first and foremost.”

This article was originally published in The Ithaca Times on October 8, 2014.

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