Campus group works to give Ohio prisoners a second chance


Kent Books 4 Prisoners members assemble packages for prisoners at institutions in Ohio on Feb. 10. Photo by Jacob Byk.

Christina Suttles

Emilio Vidal’s basement is a makeshift library that more closely resembles a wine cellar than it does your average groundwork. It’s brimming with shelving equipment and pillars of books in all varieties. This is where members of Kent Books to Prisoners work tirelessly every Sunday morning to kick-start the organization they are passionate about.

In 2011, 20,682 inmates were committed to one of Ohio’s 36 state prisons. The average reading level of inmates received is a grade level of 7.5, and 80 percent of offenders are high school dropouts, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

For this reason, among others, the diminutive group that is Kent Books to Prisoners (KBTP) works to give convicts a second-chance through education and awareness and to break the institutionalization that many fall victim to.

Donating to KBTP

If you’re interested in donating books, supplies or time, contact Michael Lucas at [email protected], or check out Kent Books to Prisoners’ Facebook page.

KBTP is a textbook example of a grassroots organization: It currently has four-to-five regular members and no official governmental structure in place. Although this is only one of many branches of Books to Prisoners — the most well-known in Seattle — they are on their own.

“We’ve been a slow-but-steady turtle growing,” founder and senior anthropology major Michael Lucas said. “It’s been a while for us to gather up books and try to find the space. We’re a small and humble group, but sometimes I like working within small groups of people.”

The organization primarily assists prisons in Ohio, taking a high influx of book requests from specific prisoners and doing its best to accommodate them. Prisons have rigid guidelines for the kinds of books prisoners can receive, and members must go through a checklist to make sure each books fits the requirements.

“The more educational and enriching you think it could be, the more we want it,” Lucas said. “People are learning foreign languages and trades so they can get a job when they get out.”

After shipping out the books, sometimes one-by-one, members of the organization remain pen pals with many of the individuals they have helped.

One pen pal specifically stands out in Lucas’s mind. He recalls a “beautiful” letter he received from an extremely appreciative convict who asked if the group could send him books on business and financing because he wanted to run his own non-profit assisting ex-cons in finding employment after their sentences are up.

Vidal, junior anthropology major, has been with the organization for a little more than a year. He said allowing his basement to be used as the group’s headquarters is one of the few things he’s done to help out with the group for some time, and he felt obligated considering he had the space.

He also said he is optimistic about the future of KBTP.

“I hope it becomes its own thing because right now it’s in Cleveland Books to Prisoners’ shadow,” he said. “I hope it becomes a solid, respectable and reputable organization.”

Although Lucas is, on paper, the president of the organization, he’s not eager to mention it. He founded the organization two years ago and wants his branch of Books to Prisoners to be about equality and mutual benefit to members and the community at large.

Lucas was one of the founding members of Kent State Students for Sensible Drug Policy and said he learned lessons about organizing a student group there.

Unlike other organizations on campus, positions within KBTP shift on a weekly basis. He worries that if long-term, formal roles were to be established, his purpose of the group would be defeated.

“We’re a non-hierarchical, directly democratic collective,” he said. “There is no real president or anything like that. Even once the organization goes larger and we need a more formal process, I’m going to use the same kind of tactics and methods of organization.”

At this point, the organization has more ambition than it does manpower. It receives dozens and dozens of book donations on a weekly basis, Lucas said, but no one seems interested in putting forth the labor to get the books in the mail.

“People seem interested enough to donate books, but they never want to take time out of their day to organize, build shelves in a library, wrap up books for packing and stuff like that,” he said. “I can’t be a one-man carpenter, library-man and post office boy all in one.”

Working with public libraries in Stow and Cuyahoga Falls has also given KBTP more supplies than they can handle.

The group helps them out with book sales and, in return, gets to take many of the unsold books, sometimes receiving trash bags full. Lucas said many members of the libraries have been extremely encouraging by telling him his project inspired them to send books to prisoners on their own time.

In addition to books, the group is in need of stamps, brown paper bags and money donations. Once the basement is set up, community members can expect to see donation bins around campus.

Looking ahead, Lucas wants the organization to branch out beyond Ohio. He wants to focus on the LGBT community in prisons, reinstating a pen pal system.

“The gay communities in prisons and transgendered communities in prison suffer way more horrendously and endure more violence than your average prisoners,” he said.

Vidal is looking forward to working more closely with the group, stressing the moral objections he has to the Prison Industrial Complex, a term used to explore the accelerated rate at which the U.S inmate population has grown over time. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and houses almost one-fourth of the world’s inmates.

“I do it for moral reasons, really,” Vidal said. “They’re human beings, and I think that we should not forget about them even if they did bad things, or even if they didn’t do bad things.”

Lucas is extremely proud of what he’s created for several reasons. He said it’s a way for him to help out people looking for hope while also making a statement about the state of prisons in our country.

“I see Books to Prisoners as a larger, more holistic mutual aid project,” he said. “I believe it’s not only a nice gesture to send books to prisoners, but in the long run it’s a gesture of resistance against the very oppressive nature of the prisons themselves.”

Contact Christina Suttles at [email protected].