BOOKS BEHIND BARS

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Though separated by several states, Cantu's Books and Liberation Library are doing incredibly important work to improve book access and equity for incarcerated youth and create a culture of reading within the prison systems in Illinois and Texas. Both initiatives believe books and relationships are crucial pieces of self-empowerment. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, On any given day, nearly 60,000 youth under age 18 are incarcerated in juvenile jails and prisons in the United States.

In a previous episode, I spoke with award-winning best selling author Jason Reynolds and his work to end book deserts. If you didn’t listen to that episode, hit the pause button, go listen, and then come back to this episode. In that conversation, Jason told me much about his work to bring book access to incarcerated youth. His reasons for his longtime visits to juvenile detention centers? Let me quote him directly...“One, because there are children there. Two, because I believe that the American penal system as it pertains to all human beings, let alone young people, I think that it's nonrestorative and I think that is actually criminal in and of itself.” In today’s podcast, I spoke with two different grassroots organizations who share Jason’s belief that incarcerated youth are an overlooked population in dire need of book access. First, Dieter Cantu is the founder of the Texas-based Cantu’s Books to Incarcerated Youth Project which has expanded throughout the state of Texas. In partnership with several universities, this program makes books readily available for the youth housed at various Juvenile Justice Department facilities. But of note, Dieter himself spent several years in juvenile justice - yet he’s chosen to embrace forgiveness, mercy, and humility as he returns to a population that shares his background. Next up is Chicago-based Liberation Library, who provides books to youth in prison to encourage imagination, self-determination, and connection to outside worlds. Liberation Library operates with the belief that access to books is a right, not a privilege - and that books empower young people to change the criminal justice system. 

 

Dieter Cantu

I kind of started walking-you know a different life. You know getting involved with the street life, I guess. And one-night October 23rd, 2005. I was involved with a robbery. It was my first time ever being arrested- first time having any interaction with- you know law enforcement and- you know, I was in the vehicle and a peer of mine had pulled a weapon on somebody and robbed them and it happened probably in-you know 60 seconds. It was a four pack of cigarettes and a cell phone. I was arrested October 23rd, 2005…..

 

Molly Ness

Dieter spent four years in prison - three different facilities in Texas and Oklahoma. While in prison, he earned his GED.  Though he wasn’t much of a reader before prison, he turned to books as a way to pass time. Eventually these books - sent to him by family members - provided an escape from the realities of prison. 

 

Dieter Cantu

Well, I mean for me, I felt like it was in the state if I can- I can just get away mentally, I can get away from my current situation when I put my head in a book. I started with- actually sign language. I taught myself sign language  I would just practice in the corner and I would read the books and I didn't know- I just knew the words and like letters and I just hoped it was right, then- you know, I didn’t have an instructor, but- you know from there, I just started getting more interested in things like theology and, you know- finance- you know Italian Renaissance Art- things of that nature and culinary arts. Actually, when I was released, I enrolled in culinary arts school, so it was really just based off what can I do once I’m released so I can create a plan- you know.


 

Molly Ness

After leaving, he began a book collection at local college campuses as a way to pay it forward to incarcerated youth, who lacked the books that he had wanted during his incarceration.

 

Dieter Cantu

So, right now, well I started one campus in UT- San Antonio, so I just started by gathering books- donation so it's 250 books in every halfway house and I try to do close to five hundred books to every high max juvenile facility in the state of Texas. So, I started on one campus, and then we went to other campuses or universities in San Antonio. Then it went to Houston and you know… UNC- things of that nature. So, I started with books that were nonfiction and I would deliver the books and give a speech or something that’s relatable- kind of you know just about my story and just words of encouragement and then I would leave my contact information and I would say ok after you read that book just tell me what you’ve learned and things of that nature and kids were writing me like crazy- you know. That's when I said okay this is expanding and is moving rather quickly and from there, I connected with my fraternity brothers Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. I created a pen pal system. I was honestly overwhelmed because we were having so many books- I had so many books, I had to purchase storage. And then I was getting so many letters, I couldn’t really keep up with them and I didn't want to be like- you know when I was a kid I remember people from the church would come and say hi and bye, give you like a few candy bars and never hear from them again. I didn't want to be- you know that type of person when I advocate for you. I would donate the books now and I connect them with a pen pal and then when they are released, I connect them with re-entry services so that’s help with resumes, finding a job, record expungement- you know you name it a professional development- you know. It's across the state of Texas and now, we’ve expanded to California, South Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, and about to be in Tennessee.

 

Molly Ness

Currently, Dieter still collects books for incarcerated youth. He’s joined by a network of volunteers who drive vans full of books into prisons.

 

Dieter Cantu

I don't accept any monetary donations at all. It’s very grassroots and so when people try to give me money, I say well take that money and purchase a book- you know- give us the book. When a conversation- for getting a lot of vans donated to us you know from juvenile probation systems in the county and things like that, but as far as you know, volunteers in my fraternity, brothers, people really go through those background checks and do what they have to do, sit through those orientations, so that they can have these real relationships with youth and not just coming as a one-time speaker so a lot of people really involved and I can appreciate that.

 

Molly Ness

Dieter also spends time visiting incarcerated youth to share his experiences and how he’s turned his life around.

 

Dieter Cantu

As far as the youth- they love it. They love it. I show them- you know the real me, I speak honest with them and I'm straightforward- you know. I show them my mugshots, I show them all of my write-ups- you know- what you've done I probably done times 10 when I was in incarcerated- you know. They- I never received like a kid saying the books are dumb or I don't like that. They actually want books- to actually want something different. It's just a book that caters to what they like, what they- what they're interested in, and I think that's what a lot of facilities you know we're missing- you know at the time. So, I asked them if you are interested in…and music or this and that- you know why don't I give you a book on how to create a company? Why don't I give you a book that's based on what's you- your individualized needs are instead of just something that's outdated or a book that’s- nobody would even read- read outside of being incarcerated- you know so…

 

Molly Ness

As he reflects on his success, Dieter also lays out big plans for the future

 

Dieter Cantu

I have a few ideas. So, right now, it went from a project to a program. From a program, I would like to create policy- you know. As far as- you know, I feel like a lot of service providers focus on the school to prison pipeline and we don't focus on which isn't- it’s a base definitely needed, but we also need to focus on kids that are incarcerated and coming back out into society- you know and not just the one preventing them from going in because reality is kids are incarcerated need help coming out so, in the future, I would like to create a lot more programs within the juvenile detention system- you know the high max facilities- just to give them more options that's one. I would like to create a mobile app- where you can download or not download, but kind of check out books that are African American literature and Latino studies and I'm working on that right now and- you know more availability and you know more consistency across the state and- you know, I don't really have the capacity right now outside of the states that I am in, but if anybody hears this or goes on my website, I would like to consider a partnership even in the state where I’m not serving youth. We can actually figure out if the capacity is right and we can have people on top of it. I’m open for all ideas.

 

Molly Ness

I took the opportunity to play devil’s advocate, and push Dieter on why - with so many children in so many areas in need - his focus is on children in prison. He explains why he will never stop fighting for children.

 

Dieter Cantu

Right, I mean because they are children- I mean that’s as simple as it gets- you know. When you go to ….. Or any of these- you know it's supposedly a- it's supposed to be just temporary. It's supposed to be a learning experience- supposed to be a second chance- a chance for you to get back on track because you have broken a law and no matter how big or small, I believe that a kid deserves a second chance- you know and you have to think that kids are really spending- at the age of 14 can spend 5 years in the facility- like these are their developing stages. This is where their mind is developing, its where their body is developing and maturing and experiencing things, so for them to go through- hypothetically 5 years of being incarcerated and nothing is being offered like that that is crazy to me and then you discharge or you cop out well it was 21 and now your- 19 well you discharge at 19 and then they say well- we don’t care what your situation was. We need you to report. We need you to take a urine analysis. You need to pay your dues to parole. You need to take these classes- anger management and if you don’t, you’re going right back- you know. So, it's just creating recidivism- it's creating a cycle. We’re not putting anything in place for children to become better. How are we telling them to do better if we're not showing them how to do better? And you know at the end of the day, these are children they can be anybody's child- you know everybody deserves a second chance.

 

Molly Ness

Before I share my conversation with Liberation Library, let me share out this episode’s related reading. Remember in the spirit of building conversation about our reading lives and our reading identities, I talk about a book from my personal or professional lives - a must-read title that somehow ties to this episode. Today’s selection was an obvious one - I’m actually featuring a text set - two memoirs which dovetail each other and today’s conversation about books behind bars. The first is Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine.  This was Oprah’s summer 2018 book club selection - it is a story of hope, love, justice, and the power of reading by a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Oprah has a fantastic interview with Anthony Hinton on her Supersoul conversations podcast. Next, is Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson - subtitled a Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson serves as the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. What’s so powerful about this text set is that Bryan Stevenson was  Anthony Ray Hinton’s lawyer - these books come together to encourage readers to think through race, our criminal justice system, and forgiveness. Just Mercy is being translated into a 2019 film - starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Before we return to my conversation with Liberation Library, let me just share out one quote from Anthony Ray Hinton's’ The Sun Does Shine.

 

Molly Ness

I loved to read books in the free world, and there was a lot of time to sit around and do nothing in prison. When you read, it opens up your mind; it helped us take our minds away from where we were.

 

Molly Ness

Next, I was joined by steering committee member, Juliana Culbert of Liberation Library. Their grassroots work provides inmates in Illinois with books. 

 

Juliana Culbert (Liberation Library)

We were started out of Project Nia in February 2015. We are a volunteer-run group in Chicago that provides books to young people in Illinois prisons and juvenile detention centers.

 

Molly Ness

More specifically, they answer letters from prisoners to then directly mail them the requested titles. Juliana explains some of other projects going on at Liberation Library

 

Juliana Culbert (Liberation Library)

Our process tries to treat our readers with dignity. We- like I said before- we work with all the facilities in Illinois which include, I would say Chicago- which is really close to the city, Harrisburg, ...all over. Different- they’re a little farther away from the city center of Chicago, so we'll work with the facility to establish that contact- that relationship and once we have established that, we'll send them a starter library like a mix of books that we've gotten in our shelves already that we’ll send them and then we'll send them also a catalog and the catalog that we send the facilities is full of books. It's a curated list that's from suggestions from the facilities- from the youth in the facilities already, from teachers, from other librarians, and other people that- some of our volunteers will even suggest books, so that's important for us to give them the option of choosing something from the list because it makes it a little easier logistically, but I would say at least half of the time we have packing days there's always something else that's off of the catalog that we’ll order and try to send the kids- the youth later on.

 

Juliana Culbert (Liberation Library)

Some of the steering committee members have gone to a couple of the facilities that we worked with for a couple of years and they’ve actually met with a book club of readers there. And they really enjoy- first of all, they just love getting the books and I should also like emphasize that these are books that they get to keep so that's huge. So, they really like getting the books. They are always asking for more access and variety of books which is great. So that's like the meaningful impact that we can see when we actually talk to them. And we’ve also heard similar things from other facilities that they are- the kids are just so excited to get the books. And in terms of tangible numbers, we've- since, I think in the past year it’s been like over- it’s easily over like 2,000 books in the past year. And we've existed- that number keeps going up because we've definitely- we've expanded to all the youth facilities in Illinois. 

 

Molly Ness

I did have the chance to ask Dieter Cantu my favorite question.

 

Molly Ness

As we wrap up, I'm going to ask you the question that I ask all of my guests and I'm almost positive that you will have an answer that's pretty powerful. Could you tell us a book that really transformed you or had an impact on you as a reader and as a person; maybe it was a book that you came to when you were incarcerated yourself. What is that book that really changed you or just has always stuck with you?

 

Dieter Cantu

Soul on Ice by Eldredge Cleaver. So, he was a black panther and I won't even spoil it for anybody. I would let people read it on their own and you know do their due diligence, but please read Soul on Ice from Eldredge Cleaver. That changed my whole mindset.

 

Molly Ness

Julianna Culbert of Liberation Library left before I had the chance to ask her about that one standout book, but she left me with these thoughts about the focus on incarcerated youth.

 

Juliana Culbert (Liberation Library)

This is a population that is our future like they are going to be growing up in a world that all of us inhabit and it makes no sense to me personally that we wouldn't try to reach them while we can. So, we founded with the intent to provide them with these books to encourage literacy, imagination, self-determination, and we believe it's important to their intellectual and academic freedom to expose them to a wide variety of materials and information.

 

Molly Ness

Thank you to both Dieter Cantu and to Liberation Library not only for their time and candor but for the work that they do to bring books to our incarcerated youth - a population so typically overlooked by so much of society.

 

For more information on these programs, and to find out more about the August 2020 Literacy Warriors United hosted by the kind folks at Bernies Book Bank in Chicago, visit www.endbookdeserts.com