The University’s Justice and Service in Tacoma group held the Books to Prisoners Book Drive from Oct. 22 to Nov. 9. The book drive goes through the Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners to offer incarcerated individuals the opportunity to read.
Over the past weeks, boxes were positioned in Collins Library, the Student Diversity Center and the Center for Writing, Learning and Teaching. Members of the JuST group have been busy collecting books, tabling to publicize the cause and raising money to cover the cost of sending the boxes into a prison.
JuST is a group comprised of student and faculty members who meet weekly to discuss issues regarding social justice. The group members select an issue of focus each month, and then bring in a guest speaker, articles or media pieces to guide and facilitate discussions on the issue. Additionally, the group aims to do a community service project related to the month’s topic.
October was prison month for JuST. This focus was inspired by the Race, Education and Criminal Justice Conference held at the University on Oct. 6.
The conference looked at a range of issues including education in prisons and the school to prison pipeline, an observation that inequality in education makes undesirable paths more likely for certain individuals or groups. The overarching fact is that intersections of race play into education, and this reality is prevalent when viewed through the lens of incarceration in the U.S.
“When we add in the factors of class and race, the prisoners of this country start to look less like dangerous offenders and more like victims of a society that has created a racial caste system,” Isaac Olson, a JuST member and leader of the book drive, remarked.
African Americans only account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. prison population; Hispanic individuals make up about 16 percent of inmates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Jails.
The Race, Education and Criminal Justice Conference placed an emphasis on supporting incarcerated individuals.
“Since I attended the Race and Pedagogy conference, I’ve definitely re-examined how I view the prison system in terms of punishing prisoners versus rehabilitating prisoners,” JuST member Elaine Stamp said.
Providing support to those incarcerated is the basis for the Books to Prisoners Book Drive. Roman Christiaens, the leader of JuST and Social Justice Coordinator at the University, remarked on JuST’s role in promoting awareness at the university.
“One thing that we can do is show that it is within our scope and capabilities to support the individuals that are incarcerated,” Christiaens said.
By showing that simply donating books is an avenue to offer this support, JuST has achieved its goal of spreading awareness on campus regarding how individuals can become involved in issues of social justice.
Another of JuST’s aims is to examine the causes of social justice issues. Christiaens identified that there are abundant service opportunities available for students, but he believes that an understanding of the need for service is essential.
“It has been my experience that these opportunities do not address what the systems are that create the need for service. In JuST, we strive to engage in service with these systems in mind,” Christiaens said.
Olson, too, commented on this aspect of JuST.
“I think of us primarily as a group focused on educating ourselves, so that we can place the service we do in its broader context,” Olson said.
In holding the book drive, JuST offered the campus community an opportunity to engage with the underlying issues and systems that create the need for service.
Collins Library director Jane Carlin, who helped put a donation box in the library, said, “I think we often take for granted that the books we have such easy access to are not always accessible to others so projects such as the Prisoner’s Book Drive really help support literacy on many levels.”
Offering books to prisoners promotes literacy, but as Stamp recognizes, books symbolize an opportunity.
“A book gives a prisoner a chance to grow and learn,” Stamp said. “In that sense, the purpose of this book drive is not only to spread the written word, but also to give an opportunity for change.”
The Books to Prisoners Book Drive aims for change on many levels. The book drive propagates a change in society’s perception of incarcerated individuals and, consequently, a change in the way they are treated, thus transforming the opportunities available to those incarcerated.
To get involved in other projects with JuST, contact Roman Christiaens (firstname.lastname@example.org), or join JuST at the weekly meetings at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays in Wheelock 201.