PALMER SQUARE — When Liberation Library went viral this month, it was because it received a letter from an unusual author: a child in a prison who was grateful to receive books to read.
“I wanted to thank you because sometimes it’s hard to pass time when you have to do time,” the child wrote in the viral letter.
The 5-year-old group sends book to incarcerated children throughout Illinois while advocating for the abolishments of the prison industrial system. Its books help children learn and keep occupied while in jail.
“People [on social media] were really shocked that we incarcerate children in this country, and rightfully so,” said Lucy Geglio, a member of Liberation Library’s steering committee. “This organization is … an accessible onramp for someone to feel that horror that a child would be locked in prison, and also acknowledge and discuss, ‘Well, why is anyone in prison?’”
Liberation Library was formed in 2015 with support from Project NIA, an organization started by prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. Organizers send about 100 books a month to children in prisons and juvenile detention centers across Illinois.
They partner with Chicago booksellers, including Semicolon Books and Pilsen Community Books.
The group’s steering committee, which is non-hierarchical and consists of volunteers, organizes packing days to package books, handwritten letters and bookmarks for children.
During the coronavirus pandemic, they have also sent art supplies, hand sanitizer and other items.
“While there are young people and people in prison, we will exist to fulfill this material need that folks have inside, which is access to books of their choosing and books that are theirs to keep,” said committee member Bettina Johnson.
Organizers said these books are for recipients to keep — and not for the libraries of the facilities where children are being detained. The books are not to be used as “reward or punishment,” Johnson said.
Committee members said it is critical for children who are incarcerated to choose books for themselves through their catalog, though some facilities have tried to censor what books and subjects children can read.
“We see this as recognition of young people’s ability to choose for themselves what books they want to read, and for us not to be gatekeepers for resources or knowledge,” Johnson said.
The group is looking to expand and send books to other facilities, including immigration detention centers or refugee resettlement facilities. That has proven difficult, organizers say, because such facilities severely limit access to outside organizations and frequently change administrators.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.