CMU Students Launch Book Drive for Allegheny County Jail Inmates

Students under the guidance of Kathy Newman , an associate professor of at Carnegie Mellon University, organized a book drive for the inmates of the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).

The students in Newman’s "Banned Books" course initiated the drive in response to the ACJ’s mid-November decision (now reversed) to restrict inmate reading to 90 minutes per day on reading tablets or selections from the jail’s "leisure library," which, the students said, was insufficient for the need.

Newman first learned of the new policy at the ACJ from one of her students, Elena Delvecchio, a sophomore studying in the School of Drama. Newman then asked the class if they wanted to brainstorm some possible actions in response. Six students volunteered to organize a book drive.

Kerry Mills, a first-year student in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences , emphasized the importance of the book drive.

"At the current time, the inmates really only have access to classical literature that not everyone is trained to understand," Mills said. "With the book drive we are hoping to collect books that people from all backgrounds can enjoy."

According to news reports , COVID-19 has severely affected the quality of life at ACJ, with inmates only allowed out of their cells for one hour each day. The students on the ACJ task force realized that these conditions further emphasized the need for new books.

"Even in regular times it’s so important to have something healthy and productive to focus on," said, Kristin Donegan a junior studying biological sciences. "During this global pandemic, it seems especially inhumane to deny inmates access to adequate reading materials."

On Dec. 4 the ACJ Oversight Board held a closed meeting to discuss the new reading restrictions. Several students from the "Banned Book" course sent in statements in an effort to reverse the policy.

"This policy seemed very exploitative and very obviously bad," said Abi Kim, a junior majoring in computer science who submitted a comment. "You should not try to profit off the poorest people in the system with something that they already had limited access to. This policy was bound to bring on a lot of backlash and it was important for us to take action against it."

The morning after the oversight meeting, the ACJ warden announced that the new policy was being reversed. Newman speculated that the decision was likely swayed by the outpouring of public concern.

Although the policy has been reversed, the students of the "Banned Book" course have decided to continue the book drive through Dec. 18th.

Paperbacks are preferred and the books cannot contain violent imagery, including weapons or drug paraphernalia. Newman’s students emphasized the importance of following CMU’s COVID-19 guidelines when dropping off donations.

Kathy Newman, associate professor of English, shown here photographed before the COVID-19 pandemic, teaches "Banned Books." Students in her class organized a book drive for inmates at Allegeny County Jail.

Books can be donated at:
  • The Forbes Avenue entrance of the Cohon University Center
  • Near the first-floor entrance of Hunt Library
  • Outside the 145 wing of Baker Hall.

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