Durland Alternatives Library promotes prisoner rehabilitation

By Gillian Nigro and Jamie Swinnerton

Ithaca – Mar. 24, 2014 – A decade ago, the assistant director of the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University, Gary Fine, received a letter from a prisoner requesting books.

“He explained to me that in prison all he has is pencil and paper,” Fine said. “He’s on the lowest level of solitary confinement and he’ll probably never get out. Books were his link to sanity.”

Prisoner Express was the result, which has since worked to promote rehabilitation for prisoners across the country through various self-enrichment programs.

Sending books to people in prison still remains the largest part of the project, but it has since expanded to include a pen pal program, a prisoner art program, a book club, self-education programs and a bi-yearly poetry anthology, among other educational initiatives.

“It’s a literal renaissance,” Fine said.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) reported in 2011 that nearly seven in 10 people who were formerly incarcerated will eventually commit a new crime, and half will end up back in prison within three years. A 2005 IHEP report, however, indicated that recidivism rates for incarcerated people who had participated in prison education were on average 46 percent lower than rates of incarcerated people who had not taken college classes.

Fine receives stacks of letters from prisoners daily. He said many of them write that these programs have changed their lives.

“We get people out of prison by getting them deeper into themselves,” Fine said. “We have a whole bunch of programs that encourage self-reflection.”

The project receives no funding from Cornell, and thus relies entirely upon donations and support from volunteers, many of whom are local students.

“The prisoners are really grateful that we’re even giving them the time of day, let alone helping them out and trying to get them back into the real world,” said Amanda Hutchinson, an Ithaca College student who has been working at the Alternatives Library since September of 2013, and contributes both to the book packaging and pen pal programs.

Another Ithaca College student and Alternatives Library volunteer, Candace Burton, is in the process of organizing a book drive for the project.

“Gary [Fine] said that one of his biggest needs was fundraising,” Burton said. “We’re in the process of getting a list of professors so I can give them a letter that asks for donations of books.”

Books Thru Bars, a prison book program that operated out of Autumn Leaves Used Bookstore in Downtown Ithaca, closed down in December of 2013 after the retirement of its director, Jurden Alexander.

“If I was maybe 10 years younger, I may have thought about continuing the program,” the 66-year-old Alexander said.

Prisoner Express is filling the gap and then some.

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