This weekend, I participated in Into the Streets, Cornell’s annual day of volunteerism and service. This wasn’t my first time volunteering, but it was certainly the most memorable.
Into the Streets is a collection of projects designed to benefit the local community. Student groups sign up as teams and are then assigned to a project for the day. During my freshman year, we taught residents the importance of energy saving and went door-to-door, handing out CFL light bulbs. Other groups have helped rebuild nearby towns such as Owego, after a bad flood. This time, my organization, the Chinese Students Association (CSA) packaged books for inmates as part of the Books Through Bars program.
Books Through Bars (BTB) is an external nonprofit prisoner education program dependent entirely on donations and volunteerism from the local community. Incarcerated individuals around the country write to various chapters asking for certain genres of books, sometimes alluding to specific titles. Volunteers then scour the stacks of donated books to find matches, and then package them to be sent to the inmates.
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. As college students, we’re blessed with the gift of education every day. We often even view this “bombardment” of knowledge as a burden, complaining about homework, projects, and prelims. While we mindlessly surf through the pages of the world wide web — researching whatever might catch our fancy at each instant — and flip through the chapters of our readings — grumbling about the inconvenience of carrying textbooks up the slope — prisoners at jails around the country wait months just to write a letter to the BTB program, imploring for almost any kind of book to fill their minds. Sometimes, the letters are personal, full of gratitude, from individuals who have received a package from BTB before. (One inmate wrote that he had not watched TV in years because he had been too busy reading!) Other times, the penman is new, just starting to learn to read and write, with the simple request of a dictionary. Of course, there are also the “troll” letters asking for illicit material, which we cannot send. With each letter, one gets a glimpse into the life of a person who has done wrong, is starting to reform, and is thirsty to learn.
As our guide explained, “they’ll read anything you give to them.” Requests for books on history, science fiction, fantasy, law, poetry, mystery, and various cultural topics were the most common. The program does not have external funding* to buy new books, so all materials are the aftermath of various donation programs, dump and runs, and charities. Numerous copies of books from Cornell’s famed “New Student Reading Program” made the collection, sandwiched between texts from as old as the 19th century. On tables lied piles of obscure titles of one-hit-wonders. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the authors of these novels ever anticipated their “next generation thriller” would reach the bars of prison, and if so, would they have written the story differently? One likes to write to target the general population but it is often the outliers who end up with these works. Perhaps there should be developed a set of books that would both engage the bored minds of prisoners, and provide reforming educational knowledge. After all, as they have shown, they are more than willingly to read.
With these thoughts, I stepped onto a crowded TCAT Bus after our shift.
“Step away from the back door,” the bus driver addressed to passengers who were blocking one of the doors.
“Ay man, move away from the door,” a scruffy looking rider repeated. “Door! D – O – O!” A round of stifled, embarrassed chuckles followed suit.
On the other hand, perhaps before bringing education to the prisons, we should first work on education in Ithaca.
* In this way, many BTB chapters have found it difficult to sustain themselves and are beginning to close. The Ithaca chapter that we helped at will close at the end of the year.