Group works to bring literature into prisons



Due to the efforts of Naasiha Siddiqui ’05 and a group of like-minded activists focused on prison reform, many prison inmates will soon have access to an assortment of intellectually stimulating literature.

Siddiqui is leading the effort to establish a Yale chapter of Books Through Bars, a national organization that answers prisoners’ requests for books by sending them what the group’s Web site calls, “quality reading material.”

Siddiqui said her personal philosophies were a motivation for starting the new group.

“I don’t think that by sending people to prison we can change their ways,” she said. “What would be helpful would be to have education within prisons. I think it’s important to establish education and dialogue within the prison system.”

Although there are only seven or eight students in the group now — mostly members of the Student Legal Action Movement (SLAM) — Siddiqui said the group hopes to expand.

Sarah Stillman ’06, who is co-coordinator of SLAM, said her experience with prison tutoring has convinced her of the need for programs like Books Through Bars.

“I tutor in a prison where most inmates have very little access to any forms of intellectual stimulation,” Stillman said. “One of the most obvious steps to acknowledge that inmates have minds is just to provide them with books.”

The idea for a Yale chapter of Books Through Bars stemmed from Siddiqui’s volunteer work in Philadelphia during a semester off. Siddiqui said the Philadelphia chapter of Books Through Bars receives almost 1,000 letters a day from prisoners, and is completely overwhelmed. Starting next week, the Yale chapter will be receiving approximately 25 of Philadelphia’s letters per week to help alleviate some of the burden.

Siddiqui said Yale was a great place to start something like a social action-motivated book drive.

“It’s just to help people in the prison community,” she said. “And we definitely have a lot of extra books lying around.”

Larger social problems had exacerbated the need for programs like Books Through Bars, Siddiqui said.

“The prison population has doubled since the 1980s while funds for education have been slashed,” Siddiqui said. “Now a lot of corporations are profiting from putting people in prison.”

Although the New Haven Book Bank will donate to the cause, Siddiqui said many more donations will be needed. Books Through Bars will be setting up a donation box in Dwight Hall, as well as one in each residential college and possibly one in the Hall of Graduate Studies.

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