By Xiao Lyu
In a temporary place on the Near West Side, a small group of volunteers made bookmarks and wrote notes for a pack of books ready to be shipped to three juvenile detention centers in Illinois.
Having struggled for a while about what to write, first-time volunteer Paul Dailing chose some simple personal notes, such as “Hey, the art looks really fantastic” and “Hope you’ll enjoy it”.
“It’s just something valuable and should be done,” Dailing said.
It was a typical book packing day, an event that happens twice a month in Liberation Library, a community organization in Chicago that provides books to incarcerated youths in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities in Kewanee, Pere Marquette, and Harrisburg. Since their first shipment of 84 books in July, 2015, more than 300 books have been shipped.
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Liberation Library was founded by Mariame Kaba, who is also the founder of Project NIA, a grassroots organization aiming to end youth incarceration.
As of June 30, 2015, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) housed, on average, 725 youth each day. According to the department’s 2015 annual report, the youth typically spend seven-and-a-half months in the facility; there are six of them in Illinois.
Hard to find teachers
In 2012, a class action lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the IDJJ, seeking improvements in education, mental health services, and general health and safety conditions. The 2015 annual report states that the IDJJ has not yet met educational requirements for full-time, full-day schooling at Kewanee and St. Charles, due to the challenge in hiring teachers.
According to department spokesman Michael Theodore, the current student/ teacher ratio for education programs at the facilities is 10:1.
Seeing the dire need to improve education for youth in prison, Kaba founded Liberation Library in February 2015.
“It’s important for young people to have access to books in general, most especially if they are caged behind bars,” Kaba said in a phone interview. “Books make a difference in our lives.”
Youth participants can select books of their choosing based on Liberation Library’s inventory, which covers a wide range of genres with a special focus on youth issues and problems young people face growing up.
Books with a high demand include fiction, such as “Tyrell” by Coe Booth and the thriller “Kiss the Girls (Alex Cross)” by James Patterson.
“These books are a form of communication onto itself,” said Jocelyn Nelson, one of the 10 steering committee members now in charge of running the organization. “So it was really powerful to hear just how important the books they were able to pick for themselves were to them.”
Plans for expansion
Recalling a recent visit to the facility in Harrisburg to consult with the youth and expand their booklist, Nelson said she saw the impact of Liberation Library’s work.
“All the youth that we spoke to or walked by the halls, they knew our name, they knew our work,” Nelson said. “So we are realizing that we are really having an impact on these youth.”
Liberation Library has raised more than $4,400 on its online fundraiser page. The funds were used for book purchasing, packing and shipment.
The fledgling group is currently working to expand the book shipment to other youth detention centers in Illinois, and seeking partnership for new possibilities and initiatives, including a pen pal program with Chicago Public Schools students.
“We are at very early stages, so we want to be really intentional about how we are going to expand,” Nelson said. “We would like to talk more about the politics and history behind why we are doing this work, and we want to share that both with community members and classrooms.”