The Public Square

Sarah Ross on U-C Books to Prisoners


Hi. I'm Sarah Ross. An artist and educator and a member of U-C Books to Prisoners and Education Beyond Bars, a prison education initiative.

When I moved to Illinois less than 2 years ago, i never thought i'd find my first teaching job at an Illinois state prison. I also never imagined that a simple class assignment--writing a paper about an artist--could have turned into such a challenge.

First it took the efforts of the prison librarian and the educational coordinator, to get special passes to the students for permission to the library. Even though access to a library is a basic right in prison, frequency is not, as only 25 men per cell block can go at a time. The next step was coordinating when a prisoner would be allowed to go to the library; movement from place to place as an incarcerated person is a monitored activity. The final piece of the puzzle was getting books for prisoners to read in order to write the paper. Illinois cut funding for education and educational materials like library books, throughout the 1990's. Although studies prove again and again that educational opportunities to prisoners reduce recidivism, creates a safer prison environments for inmates and staff alike and increase the probability of a prisoner's family seeking higher education, legislatures find it a popular vote-getting activity to be tough on crime, which translates to large budgets for prisons but minimal funding for community restoration or rehabilitation. Thus leaving behind incarcerated men, women and children who will re-join our communities as our neighbors, co-workers, friends.

So this simple assignment of writing a short paper, for me, turned into a brief education of state abandonment. I realized I had to find the books needed for student's research. I also had to again coordinate with my colleagues in the prison to get the books in and available at the library. Not just anyone can donate books to a prison.

This landed me at the doors of a local group Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners, an organization that sends books for free to Illinois prisoners. They also supply books to and staff libraries for, inmates at the two Champaign County Jails. UC Books to Prisoner is an all volunteer group founded just 2 years ago. As of today, they have sent over 10,000 books to 2000 people in Illinois prisons, in response to letters from prisoners. Like many non-profit groups, Books to Prisoners depends on donations and events like books sales to raise money for shipping the 250 packages of books they send out each month.

Beginning Thursday, April 12, through Sunday, April 15, Books to Prisoners will host a huge book sale at the Independent Media Center in the Urbana Post Office Building in Downtown Urbana.

Please visit to browse and learn more about this tremendous local resource that is looking to educate and improve all of our communities into the future! More information can be found at the web site: That's books, the number 2, prisoners dot org.