Youths in prison may be the last thing on many people’s minds, but at Liberation Library, they’re at the forefront of its mission.
Liberation Library is a Chicago-based volunteer-led prison abolitionist organization dedicated to providing books to incarcerated youth. To them, access to literature is a right, not a privilege.
We spoke to the volunteers at Liberation Library, and collectively, they gave us responses about their efforts. Let’s take a look at the story and mission of Liberation Library.
A mission led by volunteers
Even though Liberation Library is sponsored by the Chicago Freedom School, the organization is entirely led by incredible volunteers.
Being volunteers, they also have day jobs of their own. This means all the effort they devote to Liberation Library consists entirely of their own personal time.
“Everyone on this team is here doing this work because of a shared dedication to our readers and to abolition.”
These volunteers headed by the group’s Steering Committee undertake a variety of tasks to help get books to incarcerated youth.
These include “facility outreach and communication, organizing bi-monthly packing days, restocking inventory, shipping books, developing and maintaining various fundraising projects, and supporting campaigns that align with our mission and vision.”
Liberation Library’s reach and its goal of prison abolition is extensive. The group provides books to every state-run youth prison in Illinois as well as six juvenile detention centers. They also change the books based on feedback from the youth.
After sending out a book catalogue to incarcerated youth, the organization uses the children’s feedback and recommendations to help introduce them to new stories and authors for them to immerse themselves in.
“We believe strongly in the autonomy and self-determination of our readers; we do our best to send the books they ask for, and we do not censor any texts that they request.”
Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberation Library is still going on as strong as ever.
They’re conquering the COVID-19 crisis…
While many organizations have had to curb their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberation Library is doing the exact opposite.
“We have doubled the number of books we are sending to each facility, so that our readers have access to other worlds of their choosing during this isolating time.”
COVID-19 is especially affecting prison populations. Being in such confined conditions with massive crowds of course makes it difficult to get any distance or protection from the virus.
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This morning Liberation Library and @AssatasDaughters held down a noise demonstration outside of Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (aka Juvenile Jail) — this was one part of a three part action that happened across Chicago. Dozens of abolitionist orgs came together to pull this off because while we may work with or address specific populations in detention or who are incarcerated we all understand as a community the importance to #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth Please join us in demanding #MassReleaseNow
“Social distancing is basically impossible in a jail or prison,” said a spokesperson from Liberation Library.
“Additionally, incarcerated people cannot avoid contact with guards and staff at the facilities, which increases their risk of exposure. Guards and newly admitted detainees are the main vehicles for COVID-19 to enter a facility.”
This makes Liberation Library’s efforts all the more essential. In addition to more books, they are also sending supplies such as hand sanitizer, masks, and bottled water to help keep incarcerated youth safe and sanitary.
The group is also sending art supplies and board games to provide the kids with more entertainment and engagement.
The group has also made changes to where it sources its books. Where it once sourced from Amazon, now has shifted towards supporting local bookstores.
This is in part due to controversy surrounding Amazon after many of its warehouse employees claimed they lacked proper PPE and safe warehouse conditions in the midst of the pandemic.
“We aim to stand in solidarity with Amazon warehouse workers in Chicago who have gone on a series of safety strikes for more sanitary working conditions during the pandemic while redirecting our funds to support vital community spaces.”
It's not too late to donate to our solidarity book drive! We're partnering with @citylit_books, @OpenBooks, @PilsenCommBooks, @SemicolonChi & @wcfbook to double the # of books we send to incarcerated youth during the pandemic. Donate thru our partners: https://t.co/AmM4OtJteh pic.twitter.com/K3ro2924kr
— Liberation Library (@liberationlib) April 27, 2020
Just like in many other industries still, the COVID-19 crisis has presented no shortage of challenges to Liberation Library.
For one, Illinois prisons are restricting activity for both incarcerated individuals and visitors alike in an attempt to quarantine the virus.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, youth jails and prisons in Illinois have restricted their in-person visitations and reduced the programming for the young people locked inside.”
While such measures may protect people from the outside coming into the prison, it still adversely affects the people imprisoned. This lack of stimulation can affect incarcerated individual’s morale and their psychological well-being, especially so for those in solitary confinement.
A spokesperson from the organization said: “the use of solitary confinement is tantamount to torture with the potential for long-term psychological damage.”
Liberation Library’s efforts to provide incarcerated youth engagement through literature are crucial to providing a sense of engagement and normalcy to them. Things which many people need in this pandemic.
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Why we do what we do. 📦💌📚 As you know, we have continued to send books to incarcerated young people throughout the COVID-19 crisis. This week we were so moved to receive this letter of gratitude from one of our readers: “I wanted to thank you because sometimes it’s hard to pass time when you have to do time. I also am very thankful for the books you guys have given me. I am so happy that people are out there that can help kid like me pass the time & help us jump into a new world where the room your in disappears and you see a new place/world right before your eyes. So…thank you.” Liberation Library sends books of young people’s choosing inside IL youth prisons and detention centers (jails and prisons) for them to keep. We are also working towards not existing as an organization because we believe in #BooksNotBars and that the state needs to #FreeThemAll #booksliberate #liberationlib
The organization is also weathering its own administrative struggles due to the crisis. For the safety of the rest of their volunteers, they have had to cancel their packing day events, where people come together to pack books to send off to prisons.
Many of their volunteers also assist with tasks such as filling orders, writing personalized notes to our readers, and shipping out books.
Due to the pandemic, however, they are down to solely their core leadership: the Steering Committee, which only consists of nine members. Since they are also volunteers, that means they still have day jobs and lives of their own outside of Liberation Library.
Despite these challenges, the members of the organization are still bravely persisting in their mission to provide literature to incarcerated youth as well as their prison abolition work.
Sparking new conversation about incarceration
In the wake of racial justice protests across the country, and even the rest of the world, Liberation Library is doing its part to create change and contribute to the dialogue around the criminal justice system.
“The current civil rights movement has helped move us forward with this mission in two significant ways. The first is that more and more people are learning about our work,” said a Liberation Library spokesperson.
“The second change is an overall increase in public interest in prison abolition.”
Liberation Library’s efforts to enlighten the minds of young people in prison ultimately highlight the importance of people being able to have access to information, no matter who they are.
“One of our core beliefs is that access to books is a right, not a privilege,” said a Liberation Library spokesperson.
“As prison abolitionists, we want a world where no one is in prison, but until we get there, sending books is a way to show up for the young people currently locked inside.”
One great way to put the organization’s mission into concise and powerful words is to paraphrase their founder, Mariame Kaba: “A book is like a bomb that can break down walls and transport you to other worlds.”
With these protests sparking up new debates about police reform, defunding, or even abolishing the police, Liberation Library is continuing its advocacy for change in the justice system and the abolition of prisons.
“Our core work hasn’t changed in response to the current uprisings – we remain committed to getting books to incarcerated young people and to working toward a world without police or prisons.”
Opening new worlds of imagination
Even in the middle of widespread protests and the COVID-19 crisis, Liberation Library is doing more than just staying strong in its missions.
The organization is getting stronger.
By continuing to provide literature as well as other crucial supplies to prisons and juvenile detention centers, it is opening incarcerated youths’ minds to worlds beyond their cells.
But even so, the group envisions something even greater:
“As an abolitionist group, we envision a future in which we no longer exist, because prisons and jails have been eradicated.”
“The prison cannot be victorious because walls, bars, and guards cannot conquer or hold down an idea.” – Huey P. Newton
— Liberation Library (@liberationlib) August 2, 2020