Artists and activists unite to help prisoners

By Lindsay Tate

For some, books are an escape from the mundane routine of everyday life. But for a prisoner, a book can provide solace from the harsh realities of a cell block.

Understanding this, local activist group, Books To Prisoners Ottawa, is working to improve book access for prisoners and is raising awareness about issues in Canada’s criminal justice system.

The organization, which is a member of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at Carleton University, collects new and used books to send to inmates in Canadian jails and prisons.

Angela Mooney, a member of Books To Prisoners Ottawa, says the program gathers donations from the community and has worked with the Correctional Service of Canada since 2003 to distribute the books to prison libraries.The group also sends specific books to individual prisoners, if requested, she says.

Since September, the group has sent close to 1,000 books to Corrections Canada to be placed in the prison library system, says Mooney.

Donations to the program have ranged from small contributions made at benefits or at the group’s office, to a large gift of 400 books from a donor’s personal library at the end of October, she says.

The group collects all types of books, but she says certain types are more popular than others.

“We send a lot of legal books, like on how to represent yourself, as well as fictional material like westerns, romances and detective novels,” says Mooney.

The group does not send textbooks, instead they sell them at an annual book sale at Carleton University, using the proceeds for postage to mail out specific book requests, says Mooney.

Corrections Canada distributes the books it receives from Books To Prisoners to the libraries of its various prisons depending on need, says Christa McGregor, spokesperson for Corrections Canada.

At the prisons, staff screen the books for inappropriate content, including sexual violence or violence against children.

The books are then placed in the prison libraries and inmates can check them out, just like at a normal library, during their recreational time, she says.

McGregor says the partnership between Corrections Canada and Books To Prisoners helps offender rehabilitation, working with the educational programs already offered in the system.

“When offenders come into our institutions, 90 per cent of them function below a high school completion level,” she says. “Not being able to read or write makes correctional programming less productive so having access to books is helpful to the inmates.”

But, Mooney says while providing books to offenders may help rehabilitation, that is not organization’s goal. Instead, the group wants to help prisoners feel less alone and aid the access to quality books.

“We choose to send books because we can provide research and education but also have interaction with the people in prisons,” she says. “We want to give them access to something they’d like and help counter the isolation many of them feel.”

In addition to collecting books, Books To Prisoners also holds events to raise awareness about criminal justice issues and raise money for prisoner rights.

Their most recent event, a benefit concert held at Irene’s Pub on Nov. 9, featured live music and presentations from Jessica Squires, a member of the Justice for Mohamed Harkat group, and Aaron Doyle, a Carleton University professor, who spoke about conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

Mooney says Books To Prisoners will share the proceeds from the benefit with a legal support fund for Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, and Hassam Almrei, who are being held at the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre under security certificates.

“We like to do benefit shows because there’s a lot of artists who are willing to help us out,” says Mooney. “The shows give us the chance to combine entertainment with getting our cause out there and raising money.”

The concert featured music ranging from “anti-capitalist punk rock” to folksy rockabilly played by three Ottawa groups and touring Vancouver artists, the Joey Only Outlaw Band.

Jeff Monaghan, the drummer for local punk group, The Suicide Pilots, says this is only the band’s second benefit but they’d like to do more. “We’re a political band and our music ranges from politics and prisons to songs about war,” says Monaghan.

“It’s great to play for people who are here for a worthy cause and who are interested in hearing the music.”

Monaghan is also a member of Books To Prisoners and says public events like this are important not only to raise money, but also to raise awareness about what the program is trying to accomplish.

“Over the last 15 years, the prison library programs have been cut severely, so there’s little access to books,” he says. “By sending books, we can help people to improve themselves while they’re serving their time.”