For the past year and a half, Gary Fine has operated Prisoner Express from his apartment: sending books, letters and programming packets to incarcerated individuals through his nationwide organization and its coalition of remote volunteers.
Now, they prepare a return to in-person work from the Durland Alternatives Library in Anabel Taylor Hall.
Founded in 2004 by Fine, the director of the Durland Alternatives Library, Prisoner Express runs a variety of creative programs across 49 states to bring hope, encourage self-expression and foster a sense of community among incarcerated participants.
Twice a year, the organization compiles selected submissions and sends them in a newsletter to all active program members. Fine and his team have also created distance learning programs, which provide packets of information on a variety of topics ranging from chess to computer science.
Fine formed Prisoner Express after receiving a letter from Danny Harris, an incarcerated man in Texas. In his letter, Harris asked the Durland Alternatives Library to send him books as part of a larger distribution program he thought they were running.
Unfortunately, the Durland Alternatives Library had no such program at the time.
“I wrote him back a letter saying ‘No, sorry, we have no service like that,’” Fine said. “But it was a friendly letter, and [Harris] wrote me back thanking me for writing to him like he was a human being and for treating him with dignity and respect.”
Fine was surprised that his letter made such an impact on Harris and sent him a package of books. After which, he received a gracious letter back from Harris, expressing how much the gesture meant to him.
As word got around about Fine’s actions, he began to receive more book requests and sent books to incarcerated individuals across the country. Soon after, he founded Prisoner Express.
Prior to the pandemic, Prisoner Express operated from the Durland Alternatives Library. Volunteers from across campus and the larger Ithaca area joined together on weekdays to package books, write letters and educate themselves about contemporary social issues.
When the library closed due to the pandemic, Fine continued operations from his apartment.
“I was able to spend even more time on Prisoner Express,” he said. “We created a digital organization to digitally archive submissions.”
To help remote volunteers continue their work, Fine used Ameelio, an online service which turns messages typed on a phone into letters and mails them to prisons for free.
In addition to helping the organization’s existing volunteers continue their correspondence, this model allowed new student groups to take part.
Grace Maines ’24 first began volunteering for Prisoner Express during the pandemic through Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity. Although Maines never had the opportunity to volunteer in-person, the new model allowed her to join the team and even become the coordinator of its journal program.
Since early October, Maines has worked alongside Fine and the rest of the Prisoner Express team to plan for the organization’s return to in-person service.
“My first time doing letter writing in-person will be later this week,” Maines said. “I am super excited for that because I anticipate there will be a sense of camaraderie among all of the volunteers, and I’m looking forward to being able to share the experience together.”
Fines hopes to host events in the library every weekday between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. According to Fine, volunteers and student groups will engage in one or two tasks each day, ranging from packing books and typing essays to reading and responding to journal entries.
“When I see people on campus going to lecture halls, masked and sitting next to one another,” Fine said, “then I don’t think there’s any reason why they can’t be coming to the library masked and doing the same thing.”
Ning Ting Ni ’22, another APO member, fondly remembers volunteering in-person for Prisoner Express before the pandemic with her peers. She expressed excitement and gratitude when she heard about the return to in-person service.
“Being able to go back to in-person volunteering feels incredibly rewarding,” Ni said. “Reconnecting with others helping out our community reminds me of the tangible impact we can achieve through service.”