Prisoner Express returns to in-person letter writing and book wrapping

For the past year and a half, Gary Fine has run Prisoner Express from his apartment: sending books, letters, and program packages to inmates through his national organization and remote volunteer coalition.

Now they are planning a return to work in person from the Durland Alternatives Library to Anabel Taylor Hall.

Founded in 2004 by Fine, the director of the Durland Alternatives Library, Prisoner Express runs a variety of creative programs in 49 states to bring hope, encourage self-expression, and foster a sense of community among incarcerated participants.

Twice a year, the organization compiles the selected submissions and sends them out in a newsletter to all active members of the program. Fine and his team have also created distance learning programs, which provide information packages on a variety of topics ranging from chess to computer science.

Fine formed Prisoner Express after receiving a letter from Danny Harris, a man incarcerated in Texas. In his letter, Harris asked the Durland Alternatives Library to send him books as part of a larger distribution program he thought they were running.

Unfortunately, the Durland Alternatives Library did not have such a program at the time.

“I replied a letter saying ‘No, sorry, we don’t have a service like this,’” Fine said. “But it was a friendly letter, and [Harris] responded by thanking me for writing to him as if he were a human being and for treating him with dignity and respect.

Fine was surprised that his letter had such an impact on Harris and sent him a bundle of books. After which, he received a gracious letter from Harris expressing how much the gesture meant to him.

As word of Fine’s actions spread, he started receiving more book requests and sending books to people in jail across the country. Soon after, he founded Prisoner Express.

Before the pandemic, Prisoner Express operated from the Durland Alternatives library. Volunteers from across campus and the greater Ithaca area gathered on weekdays to pack books, write letters, and learn about contemporary social issues.

When the library closed due to the pandemic, Fine continued to operate from his apartment.

“I was able to spend even more time on Prisoner Express,” he said. “We have created a digital organization to digitally archive submissions. “

To help remote volunteers continue their work, Fine used Ameelio, an online service that turns messages typed on a phone into letters and sends them to prisons for free.

In addition to helping the organization’s existing volunteers to continue their correspondence, this model allowed new groups of students to participate.

Grace Maines ’24 began volunteering for Prisoner Express during the pandemic through the Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fellowship. Although Maines never had the opportunity to volunteer in person, the new model allowed her to join the team and even become the coordinator of her journal program.

Since early October, Maines has worked alongside Fine and the rest of the Prisoner Express team to plan for the organization’s return to in-person service.

“My first time writing letters in person will be later this week,” Maines said. “I am very excited for this because I anticipate that there will be a sense of camaraderie among all the volunteers, and I look forward to being able to share the experience together. ”

Fines hopes to hold events in the library every day of the week between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. According to Fine, volunteers and student groups will engage in one or two tasks per day, from packing books and typing to reading and responding to the newspaper. inputs.

“When I see people on campus going into lecture halls, masked and sitting next to each other,” Fine said, “then I don’t think there’s a reason they can’t come. to the hidden library and do the same. . “

Ning Ting Ni ’22, another APO member, fondly remembers volunteering in person for Prisoner Express before the pandemic with his peers. She expressed her enthusiasm and gratitude when she heard about the return to service in person.

“Being able to come back to volunteering in person is incredibly rewarding,” Ni said. “Connecting with others who help our community reminds me of the tangible impact we can achieve through service. “

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