A Brief History of our Jail Library Project

Founded in 2005 as a sub-project, the Jail Library project grew out of the existing UC Books to Prisoners project as a creative way to utilize some of the excess books donated by our community and to provide a unique volunteer experience which educates us about prisons while encouraging literacy.

Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners

UC Books to Prisoners was started early in 2004 by Radym Berlinger Reitman, a Graduate School of Library Science student, when he accepted a small box of letters from Midwest Pages to Prisoners, an Indiana books to prisoners group, and began collecting books from the community and mailing them to incarcerated peopple.  At that time, our book inventory was housed on a shelf at the original Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center location, a 900 square foot office space on Main Street in Urbana.

As more volunteers became involved and book donation channels were established, including the bin at Strawberry Fields grocery and deli in Urbana, the book collection began to outgrow the space available in the IMC and the operation moved a few blocks away to the Illinois Disciples Foundation, on Springfield Ave.  In November of 2004, BTP held its first book sale in the parking lot of the Illinois Disciples Foundation and a second book sale followed in the spring of 2005.  In addition to raising funds, it also reduced our book inventory in anticipation of our next move into what is our current space at 202 S. Broadway Ave in Urbana.

By the end of April 2005, the Independent Media Center had completed the purchase of the historical 30,000 square ft. Urbana Post Office building.  A room in the basement with built-in shelving was allocated for books to prisoners and we moved our entire inventory, which at that time was several thousand of books, into this space.  For a time our books were shelved laying flat until the shelving was modified.  

The right circumstances existed to create a library

2004 was a difficult year for the administration of the Champaign County Jails.  Following three suicides in a six month period significant public concern was articulated about the conditions and policies at the jails and the county administration was feeling the acute need for opportunities to better care for its incarcerated people and improve its public image.

Conversations with the jails administration began between Books to Prisoners volunteers, Jay Schubert and Sandra Ahten and Champaign County Jail Program Coordinator, Nancy Griffin.  Both Jay and Sandra had existing relationships with Nancy and the Sheriff at the time from previous volunteering and community activism and it wasn't long before these conversations turned towards the opportunity to improve the jails' selection of books, which at the time consisted of a seldom used rolling cart containing approximately 100 paper back books in poor condition.

On May 4th 2005, Sandra Ahten, Jay Schubert, seven professional librarians (representing Urbana, Champaign, Rantoul and Licnoln Trail Library systems) and two community members met with Nancy Griffin.  The group discussed how we could work together to improve the selection of books at our two local jails.  This group immediately recognized that we had a unique opportunity to direct some of the material donated to Books to Prisoners into our jails as well as several volunteer resources to manage the process.  Participants at this meeting toured the satellite jail, got a chance to see their existing library system and learn about some of its limitations, which were similar to those observed at the Satellite Jail.  The group came up with some ideas about how we could improve access and selection of books in the jails and possibly create and staff a lending library. 

Later that month, on May 16th 2005 the group met again; this time at the Downtown jail on Main Street in Urbana.  Again the group took a tour and held a meeting to discuss details and challenges of implementing a lending library in one of the facilities.  While the original motivation for involving professional public librarians in this discussion was to provide the opportunity for their paid staff to operate the jail libraries, by this meeting it had become clear that UC Books to Prisoners volunteer labor would be required to at least get the jail library started, while the public libraries may need to apply for grants and figure out ways to fund any staffing efforts they might contribute in the future.

On September 15 2005, following one more organizational meeting, BTP volunteers transported approximately 1,500 books, specially allocated from our collection to their new home in the downtown jail.  Our volunteers stocked the shelves with books and finalized plans for staffing this library.  On September 23rd we officially opened the new jail library to the incarcerated people and began our six times per month staffing schedule in which our volunteers work face to face with the incarcerated people as we lend, track and organize the library.

A Second Library took more time to create

After several months of successful operation of the first library in the downtown Urbana jail, the jails' administration was pleased with the project and eager to expand the services to include the satellite facility in East Urbana.  However, due to some differences in the layout and accommodations at the two facilities UC Books to Prisoners librarians had concerns which prevented the project from moving forward.  The primary challenge that concerned BTP volunteers was the lack of shelving.  While the downtown jail included built-in hardwood shelving, the satellite facility, which is a much newer building utilizing a contemporary floor plan intended to allow most services to be brought to the incarcerated people, lacked a central location suitable for a permanent library.

Negotiations with the jails administration took almost a full year before a compromise was reached which would allow the incarcerated people at the Satellite Jail the experience of browsing a library stocked with books shelved by category, in a common room staffed by BTP volunteers.  This solution involved the purchase and use of twelve solid wood book trucks, which would house the collection and be used in the central classroom.  Additionally, a utility closet with some shelving was re-purposed for the storage of books as well as these rolling book trucks, allowing for the classroom to still be used for any purpose and transformed into a library in a few minutes.

By March 2007 the second Champaign Count Jail Library was opened in the Satellite facility in East Urbana.