March 29, 2005

Cornell Students Brighten Prison Time With Books

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Prisoner Express isn’t the express train into prison, contrary to what the name implies. In fact, Prisoner Express is actually a program that creates opportunities for prisoner rehabilitation by delivering books to prisoners and printing a newsletter featuring prisoners’ writings.

It is one of several programs that Cornellians have gotten involved with, which helps reduce prisoners’ chances of recidivism upon leaving prison.

Without this rehabilitation, “[prisoners] are no more developed when they come out than when they went in,” said Gary Fine, assistant director of Durland Alternatives Library and founder of Prisoner Express.

The program began about four years ago when Fine received a letter from a prisoner wondering whether their library sent books to prisoners–at the time, Fine was only involved with writing programs at local prisons, programs that were funded by book sales. But Fine was deeply touched by the response he received from the prisoner after he had told him the library did not send books–and as a result, created Prisoner Express to send books to prisoners, as part of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) program at Cornell.

In the beginning, the program had about a dozen prisoners whom Fine and a few other volunteers would communicate with and send books to.

Nowadays, Prisoner Express has over 1,400 prisoners across the country requesting books, and Fine has begun publishing the prisoners’ pieces of writing and artwork in a newsletter and hopes to eventually feature their work on a website as well.

“Our purpose is twofold. Bringing education, information and [opportunities for] creative self expression to people who are feeling at the bottom of the barrel…And to educate people on the outside of the condition of people in prison,” Fine said.

As part of the newsletter, Fine asks participating prisoners to write about particular themes, such as religion, racial profiling, or aging. He has also asked for prisoners to help design greeting cards that could be sold to raise funds for the program. The newsletter also provides information about legal issues and opportunities to get penpals, among other useful information.

“After packing books [for the prisoners] and receiving their letters, it really resonated [with me],” said David Graff, a local volunteer of Prisoner Express. “I can’t tell you how exciting to find how open these people are … so alive and eager to get information and ideas. The stuff that they write is just gut-wrenching.”

“It is rare to converse with someone in prison whose language is not peppered with vulgarities… Spending your time in a productive, positive manner is an excellent way to make it pass less painfully. Building an impressive vocabulary will free your mind, give you the tools you need to express yourself, and allow you to speak with confidence. As in all things, the choice is yours. Maybe you like being in prison. If so, don’t change a thing,” wrote Daniel H. Harris in one of the newsletters published by Prisoner Express.

Although Prisoner Express is affiliated with Cornell, volunteers from all over the Ithaca community have become involved; students from Ithaca College and local high schools are packing books and writing to the prisoners as well.

Fine added, “We depend on volunteers. …Our youngest volunteer is 15 and our oldest is 86 [years old].”

Prisoner Express is holding a benefit concert featuring Johnny Dowd and a number of other Ithaca-based bands tomorrow as a fundraiser the program.

Another program called Cornell at Auburn gives prisoners the opportunity to learn creative writing and composition from Cornell professors for actual credit from the University.

“There is a whole slew of Cornell involvement in programs [like these,]” said Prof. Jerry Gabriel, engineering communications.

Every Tuesday night, Gabriel along with several other professors, graduate and undergraduate students take a trip out to Auburn Prison to teach creative writing. Approximately a dozen faculty members and lecturers are involved with the program, which has been running strong for ten years. Currently, 45 inmates are enrolled in the humanities classes they offer at the prison.

“While the more experienced and talented writers tend to drive the class forward, improvement is most apparent in the work of a beginner–the difference in quality from a beginner’s first piece at the start of the semester compared to a polished work handed in their final portfolio is tremendous. Completely unexpected, actually,” said Michael Klinger ’06, who is one of the program’s volunteers. “The rapid improvement in the rawest of writers caught me by surprise.”

While Prisoner Express and Cornell at Auburn do not have a history of extensive collaboration, having only coordinated a reading event earlier this year in January, Gabriel is optimistic.

“We are hopeful that our relationship will evolve,” Gabriel added.