DC Books to Prisons — a Spark in the Dark in 35 States

by guest writer Barbara Cornell

It’s Wednesday evening, and we’re in a church basement. The walls are crazy-crammed with books–from foreign languages in the far corner to business and science by the door. Busy people buzz around us.

Why have I brought you here? Joseph’s letter says it best: 

“A book or magazine is a major event in my 8×10 universe, and I would not have that spark in the dark if it were not for free.”

Joseph’s 8×10 universe is a prison cell in Woodville, Texas. And you are at DC Books to Prisons in Washington, DC.

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Our little group of volunteers—and we are all volunteers—is one of a handful of organizations around the country that sends free books to people in prison.

DC Books to Prisons serves 35 states, so we know how hungry prisoners are to read. We will send more than 16,000 books and other reading materials this year. 

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Barbara Cornell

But that’s only part of the story

We send Spanish books to children in immigration detention centers. We provide books and magazines for children visiting federal prisons, collect books for prison book clubs and build prison library collections. 

Hundreds of caring people give us books and the money to mail them, free space, free storage, free supplies. 

Sending even 16,000 books is a tiny act against the damage of mass incarceration. But choosing humanity over inhumanity is at least a spark in the dark.

“If we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history,” said Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “But I believe it can.”

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Location of other prison book programs (click for details).

Take Action!

Explore  DC Books to Prisons .

Support DC Books to Prisons with a donation.

Find similar programs near you using this map

Learn more about mass incarceration.  “Being involved in Books to Prisons made me want to know more about mass incarceration in America,” Barbara said. Here’s a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project.

Read about progress being made. There has been some progress to undo some of the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration, but there are still many more issues to tackle such as money bail

Visit previous blog posts:  
Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange
“Gillette Against Hate” Stands Up to Violent Speech and Actions

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Barbara Cornell lives in Washington, DC.


[Comment] No Duality — Both Charity and Justice are Ways to Follow the Light

[This comment about duality refers to the June 18, 2018 post, Charity and Social Justice: “Distinct but Complementary”.]

by Barbara Cornell

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma in 1965 with Dr. Martin Luther King.

I love the clarity, immediacy and honesty of the latest blog post.

You invite us to join you in an important struggle — to determine for ourselves what it takes to live on the right side of history.

You set out creating a non-partisan space for social justice, and I think that question, that struggle, is really what motivates both sides, for better or for worse.

Yet the bit of Buddhist in me squirms at the duality of the debate between justice and charity.

It seems to me that social justice warriors are trying to shock people out of their complacency so that we, as a society, can do the heavy lifting needed to bend the arc.

But there is a smugness to the assertion that meeting immediate needs is “comfortable.”

It is not comfortable for me to drag myself at the end of a long day to pack books for prisoners.

It is not comfortable to learn that the person asking for the books I love has brutally murdered his wife and children.

To argue that charity is an exercise in feeling good
while social justice is the real deal is like saying
my hand is worthless because it is not my foot.

It is not comfortable to send endless emails to arrange for the never-ending list of needs our organization has (money, transportation, storage, etc.).

It is not comfortable to be busy-up-to-here but take on one more task because the kids of an incarcerated person might be better for it.

To argue that charity is an exercise in feeling good while social justice is the real deal is like saying my hand is worthless because it is not my foot.

. . . even for social justice movements,
maybe especially for social justice movements,
money is mission.

There is no duality here. Both are a way to follow the light.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great figures in social justice, said that you do not need to go looking for God, because God is looking for you.

God can’t bring about His creation without your willingness to work for it.

Where do any social justice organizers worth their salt turn when they need to build an advocacy community?

They turn to the front-line workers and volunteers who grapple with the problem — the comfortable “charity” crowd, in your line of argument.

And why does that community respond?

Because it is impossible to stand on the front lines and not see the larger social forces at work.

Even people who just write checks and party at galas have their role.

Why?

Because even for social justice movements, maybe especially for social justice movements, money is mission.

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Barbara Cornell
Barbara Cornell, author of this post, is a wise friend, student of wonder, and long-time volunteer at DC Books to Prisons. (photo taken at the Wonder Exhibit at the Renwick Museum  in Washington, DC)

“To be or not to be is not the question.
The vital question is how to be and how
not to be . . .”   — Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

 

 

Take Action!

•   Listen to The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel, On Being, 12/6/12.

•  Check out the organization Barbara Cornell volunteers with,  DC Books to Prisons

• Watch PBS episode on Religion and Ethics about Rabbi Heschel and his walk in Selma; an excerpt from the forthcoming documentary called, “Praying With My Legs,”.