For someone in prison, a good book can make a big impact. It can help them learn skills for when they’re released, give them access to important legal knowledge, or simply help them pass the time.
That’s why IC Books Thru Bars exists. The student-run organization collects books and sends them free-of-charge to prisoners upon request. Since its conception at Ithaca College in Dec. 2013, Books Thru Bars has distributed nearly 450 books to prisoners across the country.
“Literacy is a right that you shouldn’t take away from anyone regardless of their circumstance,” said junior occupational therapy major Mara Erb, the group’s secretary.
Erb says the group receives a lot of requests for works of fiction — especially westerns — but that prisoners also regularly ask for educational materials.
“We get a good amount of requests for trade skills, like carpentry, arts and crafts, or plumbing,” said Erb. “Just people wanting to learn skills while they’re there.”
Books Thru Bars also receives requests for legal resources from prisoners, like one inmate in Texas who was seeking to exonerate himself.
“We sent him a large legal reference book last spring, and this summer we received a heartfelt welcome from him,” said Books Thru Bars Vice President Karen Passburg, a junior occupational therapy major. “He said the resource was of great help to his self-education and he shared it with other people in his unit who greatly benefited from it as well. We're going to keep sending him what we can.”
Claire Cahoon, a junior English major and Books Thru Bars’ librarian, says that the books they need most are about hobby or trade books, self-help books, mystery-thriller novels, science fiction, and books written in Spanish.
The group maintains a database of books filed according to genre, so if they don’t have the exact book someone requests, they can send something similar.
In addition to sending books to prisoners, Books Thru Bars also raises awareness of issues related to incarceration, such as solitary confinement. Through their involvement with the group, students have become acquainted with those issues. Passburg says that they have corresponded with a female prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for three years. She likes to read fantasy books like the “Twilight” and “Chronicles of Narnia” series.
“She, and other people in solitary, are really grateful for anything they can get to stimulate their minds because solitary confinement can be maddeningly lonely and empty,” said Passburg.
Erb says that they are planning to hold a screening of the documentary “Thirteenth” during the spring semester. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, explores the relationship between race and mass incarceration in the U.S., focusing on a provision in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows slavery as punishment for crime.
Books Thru Bars was started by a local community member, Jurden Alexander, and was unaffiliated with Ithaca College. Students participated through the college’s Service Saturdays program, and when Alexander moved out of town, a group of students took over for him, transforming Books Thru Bars into a student organization.
IC Books Thru Bars meets once a month for book mailings where students open letters and package and ship books. The mailings are open for all to attend. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.