From Books to Prisons: The Law School Library’s New Social Justice Program
YLS Library has launched a new social justice program to donate books to prisons.
Yale Daily News
After a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Yale Law School Library initiative that brings books to prisons is back.
The program first launched in 2020 and returned with a late February delivery to a facility less than a mile from Yale Law School that lacked a library. The initiative was spearheaded by Julian Aiken, associate director of access and faculty services at the law library. Over 1,300 books have been donated so far to various prisons and correctional facilities, and Aiken hopes to continue the expansion. He led the project taking inspiration from Dwayne Betts LAW ’16.
“I started the YLS Books to Prisons project after some discussions with a poet and (at the time) LL.D. candidate, Dwayne Betts,” Aiken wrote in an email to The News. -even been detained and described how he regained a sense of freedom after being given a book of poems in prison.”
Betts then created the Freedom Reads project, which develops library spaces in prison housing.
With Betts as his inspiration, Aiken first delivered more than 700 books to Cheshire Correctional Institute — a prison about 30 minutes from Yale — in the weeks before COVID-19 hit in 2020.
“Inmates often work on appeals or other legal matters, so we’ve provided a range of recent legal casebooks, as well as hundreds of popular fiction and non-fiction titles,” Aiken told the News.
The initiative continued to grow after Aiken began working and sharing ideas with Miriam Benson, senior administrative assistant at Yale Law School. The two, alongside other members of the YLS community, have expanded the focus beyond prisons to also include local jails, shelters and soup kitchens, Aiken said.
The team has reached out to various prisons, correctional facilities, women’s shelters and homeless service providers in New Haven.
“The selection process for the institutions to which we donate the books is somewhat organic, although the general criteria have been proximity, size and interest in accepting the donation,” Benson told the News. “Human connection and careful follow-up with each establishment is time-consuming and critically important.”
When discussing the process to reach the locations and develop the project, she said 95% of those reached were “deeply grateful for the outreach and sustained follow-up”.
The initiative returned after its pandemic hiatus on Feb. 22, with a 300-pound donation to the New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue, located 0.9 miles from Yale Law School.
“Until our donation, the center didn’t have any sort of library, so it was great to be able to set them up with a great starter collection of adult and young adult fiction and popular non-fiction,” said Aiken told the News.
Two further donations of 150 pounds each were made to two shelters for victims of domestic violence and their children in Ansonia, CT.
The initiative continues to grow, and Aiken said he hopes to continue building libraries in Connecticut prisons. He also thanked the students, faculty, staff and local community groups who donated the majority of the books and made the initiative possible.
“I will continue my awareness-raising activities in close coordination with [Aiken] so that we will achieve our goal of reaching the maximum number of installs without sacrificing comprehensive and proper tracking,” Benson said.
Law librarian and law professor Femi Cadmus also commented on the initiative, saying she supported the initiative and that it “strengthens[es] the library’s mission” to provide information to underserved communities.
“The Books to Prisons project is just one way the library is fulfilling its long-standing commitment to dismantling barriers to information access and literacy,” Cadmus told the News.
The initiative is currently looking for popular fiction or non-fiction in mint or great condition.