Prisoner Support Network

I got involved in the Prisoner Support Network (PSN), a student-based prison justice organization, several years ago. PSN is an organization that publishes a newspaper several times per year made up of submissions of artwork, essays and poetry from incarcerated persons across the country. PSN is a small organization made up of individuals with limited time, and the requests for support that we receive from prisoners almost always exceed our capabilities; we send them our newspaper, and occasionally provide correspondence through a letter –writing event or an extended pen-pal relationship.

The most overwhelming quantity of requests we get are requests for books. These prisoners are bored out of their minds, with extremely limited prison libraries. We get requests for books of all subject areas, from entrepreneurship, to history and social sciences, to quality novels, self-help books, and foreign languages. I have read countless letters from prisoners complaining that the only books available to read, if there are any, are outdates and low-quality junk-food novels, easy reads that provide no mental stimulation. If we are to think in terms of the myth that the purpose of prisons is reform, then why are prisoners not given the opportunity to improve their intellect? Why are we not providing them with the opportunity to gain marketable skills for when they are eventually released back into society, and to gain critical thinking skills to be able to be functional and intellectually engaged individuals?

Those are loaded questions, and are certainly discussions for another day. Without delving deeply into these contentious issues in this limited space, I can say that I wanted to play at least a small, but direct, role in making the experience of these prisoners more rehabilitative and less punitive. Receiving requests from these prisoners, and being able to fill them, has been an immensely empowering experience, which I did not expect. I expected to feel happy that I was helping other people, satisfied that I was helping to empower others, but I did not anticipate a strong sense of personal empowerment. Perhaps I could not break down the prison walls, within which reside a disproportionately large number of people of color, many of whom are locked up for non-violent offenses, but I could at least send little packages of hope, knowledge and resistance directly to them, offering some relief from the daily monotony and destructive boredom that is their reality. Some of the books I have sent have been typical novels of no particular political motivation, which is good in and of itself, to provide mental stimulation. But then there are the prisoners who ask for books on history and social studies, to whom I send Franz Fanon and books about the obsolescence of the prison system today. Or there was a transgendered prisoner, desperate for a piece of literature relevant to their life, to whom I sent Stone Butch Blues, a book about the life and struggles of transgendered activist Leslie Feinberg. It’s moments like that that I know that even the littlest gesture, like sending someone a book that satisfies a deep intellectual craving, can make a world of difference in another’s life, despite the fact that they are separated from the rest of us by concrete walls and prison guards. It is through knowledge in the form of books that we are empowered to subvert the system as we know it and remain connected to and empowered by one another.

I have also met the most amazing people throughout the journey of attempting to piece this project together. The members of Books Not Bombs have been an integral part of this project, not only providing many of the books that have been sent, but taking the time to seek out books that would be truly relevant to each prisoners’ needs. The Two Rivers Bookstore kindly agreed to allow me to affiliate my project with the bookstore, as books are not allowed to be sent to prisoners unless they are being sent in some official capacity from a bookstore or publishing company. I have been working on fulfilling the requests of Books Through Bars NYC, who have been temporarily banned due to an arbitrary “violation” in one of their prisoner book packages. They have been around since 1996, which is amazing for a project like this, which tends to fizzle out. I am graduating this spring, and wish I had started this project earlier, in order to be able to create a sustainable books for prisoners project in Binghamton; it is so needed. For now I must move on; next year I will be a volunteer in an Americorps VISTA program in Albany, working on expanding and improving Siena College’s prison-based education program at Mt. McGregor Correctional Institution. If anyone finds this kind of work interesting, I would encourage you to look into re-igniting this project. Feel free to contact me at epatka89@gmail.com and I would be happy to help in any way I can despite being at a distance. This is such important work; sending knowledge into the prisons piece by piece really does make a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

Prisoner Support Network

I got involved in the Prisoner Support Network (PSN), a student-based prison justice organization, several years ago. PSN is an organization that publishes a newspaper several times per year made up of submissions of artwork, essays and poetry from incarcerated persons across the country. PSN is a small organization made up of individuals with limited time, and the requests for support that we receive from prisoners almost always exceed our capabilities; we send them our newspaper, and occasionally provide correspondence through a letter –writing event or an extended pen-pal relationship.

The most overwhelming quantity of requests we get are requests for books. These prisoners are bored out of their minds, with extremely limited prison libraries. We get requests for books of all subject areas, from entrepreneurship, to history and social sciences, to quality novels, self-help books, and foreign languages. I have read countless letters from prisoners complaining that the only books available to read, if there are any, are outdates and low-quality junk-food novels, easy reads that provide no mental stimulation. If we are to think in terms of the myth that the purpose of prisons is reform, then why are prisoners not given the opportunity to improve their intellect? Why are we not providing them with the opportunity to gain marketable skills for when they are eventually released back into society, and to gain critical thinking skills to be able to be functional and intellectually engaged individuals?

Those are loaded questions, and are certainly discussions for another day. Without delving deeply into these contentious issues in this limited space, I can say that I wanted to play at least a small, but direct, role in making the experience of these prisoners more rehabilitative and less punitive. Receiving requests from these prisoners, and being able to fill them, has been an immensely empowering experience, which I did not expect. I expected to feel happy that I was helping other people, satisfied that I was helping to empower others, but I did not anticipate a strong sense of personal empowerment. Perhaps I could not break down the prison walls, within which reside a disproportionately large number of people of color, many of whom are locked up for non-violent offenses, but I could at least send little packages of hope, knowledge and resistance directly to them, offering some relief from the daily monotony and destructive boredom that is their reality. Some of the books I have sent have been typical novels of no particular political motivation, which is good in and of itself, to provide mental stimulation. But then there are the prisoners who ask for books on history and social studies, to whom I send Franz Fanon and books about the obsolescence of the prison system today. Or there was a transgendered prisoner, desperate for a piece of literature relevant to their life, to whom I sent Stone Butch Blues, a book about the life and struggles of transgendered activist Leslie Feinberg. It’s moments like that that I know that even the littlest gesture, like sending someone a book that satisfies a deep intellectual craving, can make a world of difference in another’s life, despite the fact that they are separated from the rest of us by concrete walls and prison guards. It is through knowledge in the form of books that we are empowered to subvert the system as we know it and remain connected to and empowered by one another.

I have also met the most amazing people throughout the journey of attempting to piece this project together. The members of Books Not Bombs have been an integral part of this project, not only providing many of the books that have been sent, but taking the time to seek out books that would be truly relevant to each prisoners’ needs. The Two Rivers Bookstore kindly agreed to allow me to affiliate my project with the bookstore, as books are not allowed to be sent to prisoners unless they are being sent in some official capacity from a bookstore or publishing company. I have been working on fulfilling the requests of Books Through Bars NYC, who have been temporarily banned due to an arbitrary “violation” in one of their prisoner book packages. They have been around since 1996, which is amazing for a project like this, which tends to fizzle out. I am graduating this spring, and wish I had started this project earlier, in order to be able to create a sustainable books for prisoners project in Binghamton; it is so needed. For now I must move on; next year I will be a volunteer in an Americorps VISTA program in Albany, working on expanding and improving Siena College’s prison-based education program at Mt. McGregor Correctional Institution. If anyone finds this kind of work interesting, I would encourage you to look into re-igniting this project. Feel free to contact me at epatka89@gmail.com and I would be happy to help in any way I can despite being at a distance. This is such important work; sending knowledge into the prisons piece by piece really does make a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

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