Packaging Educational Hope for Forgotten Inmates

    Despite his circumstances, Jake Adams, prisoner H865983 of
    the Montford unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has found a
    glimmer of hope in the Books for Prisoners program run by UCSD student
    volunteers and facilitated by Groundwork Books. In a letter to program
    volunteers, Adams wrote, “Thank you so much for your
    time, help and understandin’ in offerin’
    a program like this to us who are locked up.” Adams
    letter, just one of thousands tucked away in the back room of Groundwork Books
    from prisoners nationwide, echoes a collective interest in pursuing in-prison
    education that students are addressing.

    Books for Prisoners, launched in 2001, was once an official,
    fully funded sector of Groundwork Books. This branch took on the sole
    responsibility of organizing and publicizing fundraisers and parties as well as
    soliciting book and monetary donations. According to Eleanor
    Roosevelt College

    senior and Groundwork staff member Adriana Goni, Groundwork Books cut funding
    for the program because of the difficulties it has had sustaining itself
    against corporate competitors.

    Prisoners from correctional facilities submitted artwork to be displayed during an on-campus art show held on April 21 and hosted by Brian Orozco. (Courtesy of Brian Orozco)

    With more than three times as many blacks living in prison
    cells than in college dorms according to 2006 U.S. Census data, however,
    dedicated volunteers like Thurgood Marshall College senior Brian Orozco have
    found it necessary to breathe new life into this financially limited program.

    “[In the past couple of years,] we’ve had to dedicate a
    whole lot of time and energy to staying alive,” Goni said. “The problem still
    exists, though. There’s still a prison complex that profits off of slave labor
    and there’s a crazy disproportionate amount of poor people of color in prison.”

    One of the program’s main objectives has been to help
    prisoners combat this “prisoner industrial complex” by providing them with the
    tools needed to educate themselves. The complex, an allusion to the term
    “military-industrial complex” coined by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower,
    refers to the growing profitability of the prison industry — headed by the
    various vendors who do business with correctional institutions. This drive for
    profit is blamed for the shift in priorities away from rehabilitation and
    prisoner education programs.

    According to Goni, this mechanism is intended to keep
    prisoners uneducated — roughly 70 percent of U.S.
    prisoners are illiterate.

    Groundwork Books provides prisoners with a book list from
    which they can choose two books completely free of charge. Because Books for
    Prisoners relies heavily on book donations from students, the types of books
    sent to prisoners vary. Usually, genres include race theory, cultural history,
    political economy and instructional materials. Receiving roughly 10-20 letters
    requesting books per week, mostly from prisons in the southwest, the most
    requested book is the dictionary. Orozco does not find this surprising given a
    prison’s lack of educational environment.

    “That’s why this program exists. The educational
    opportunities in prison are dismal at best,” Orozco said. “Some of them offer
    classes, but you have to pay for [them] and you have to pay for your own
    books.”

    Although the role of Groundwork Books in the Books for
    Prisoners program has been reduced from all-encompassing involvement to merely
    providing shipping resources, the store still conducts a fundraiser at the
    beginning of each quarter called “Rounding up Change.” Staff members encourage
    students to either donate their loose change or round their purchases up to the
    nearest whole dollar. Further fundraising and advertising for the program has
    fallen on a group of 10 eager volunteers, headed by Orozco.

    Orozco’s involvement in the cause happened by chance. After
    wandering into Groundwork Books his eyes stumbled on a piece of artwork of
    several sketches of Chicano imagery. After inquiring about the artwork, staff
    members brought Orozco into the back room and showed him the thousands of
    prisoner letters, informing him of the program they used to have. From that day
    forward, Orozco took on the daunting task of reinstating the program and
    generating enough funds to cover the cost of shipping.

    “The thing that kills me most is the educational
    opportunities in prison and I really want to do something about it,” Orozco
    said. “Although [these prisoners] have committed a crime, society takes a lot
    out of them, too, without giving them any resources to excel once they’re out.”


    Since last February, Orozco has organized and orchestrated
    two prisoner art shows — the most recent this past April. For the show, Orozco
    solicited artwork and biographical information from over 50 prisoners and 10
    UCSD students. Some artwork, intricate patterns done in dark ink and bright
    colors, looked the part of professional creations. Others, demonstrating the
    lack of artistic resources at some prisons, were sketched onto the very
    envelopes used to send book requests. The body of work also included woodwork
    and hand-crafted jewelry — like the hand-dyed, rope crucifix that Orozco wears
    around his neck, a gift from prisoner Douglas Durham.

    A former inmate, a prisoner of five different prisons
    throughout New Jersey and New
    York
    over the span of 10 years, also attended the
    show to answer questions and draw portraits. With attendance surpassing 200,
    Orozco raised $1,600 for the Books for Prisoners program.

    “The best part of the artwork is that you get to see prison
    through their eyes. You really get to see them for who they really are —
    people,” Orozco said. “I’m not going to lie, when I thought of prisoners before
    this, I thought of all of those negative stereotypes. Then, you start reading
    their letters and seeing their artwork and you realize that these are real
    people with skills.”

    Removing the social stigma attached to prisoners is another
    motive for continuing the program, Orozco said. As a resident advisor for Sixth
    College
    , Orozco created a project
    last fall that taught his residents about life behind bars and simultaneously
    took advantage of their packaging manpower. Orozco shared the personal
    correspondence he maintains with three prisoners in particular — Willy Jones in
    North Carolina, Durham
    in Texas and Richard Rodriguez in
    Bakersfield, Calif.
    Despite the shocking tales of prison rape and gang rivalries, most prisoners’
    primary desire is to have the opportunity to walk away with something after
    serving their terms.

    “The biggest thing for [my residents] was that they’re
    students and [are] forced to read books, but these guys genuinely want to read,
    they’re dying to read, they need these books,” Orozco said.

    The group of 20 residents ultimately wrapped 189 packages
    for the Books for Prisoners program with a small budget from Sixth
    College
    . Following Orozco’s lead,
    RAs from Thurgood Marshall College
    and John Muir
    College
    hosted the same type of
    program for their residents to benefit Books for Prisoners.

    Due to the success of the art shows and RA programs, Orozco,
    who graduates this year, said he hopes to leave Groundwork Books with an
    official university club fully equipped with volunteers as dedicated to
    inmate-education awareness as he is.

    “I’d like to think that every book [we] send gives a
    prisoner the opportunity to make something of himself and to get out of that
    hole,” Orozco said. “It’s a hole made to keep people there and [we] just want
    to give them the rope to get them out.”

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