- Photo courtesy of Laura Pecenco
Volunteers with Books for Prisoners are trying to figure out how to cram dozens of boxes of donated books—tomes that had once filled more than 600 square feet of space—into a storage room one-sixth that size. The UCSD student-run group, which, since 2001, has provided prison inmates with free books, was told last month that they had to vacate the space they’d been using for almost six years.
Laura Pecenco, a Ph.D. student who's volunteered with Books for Prisoners for six years (Kinsee Morlan recently profiled her efforts to bring an arts program to Donovan State Prison), said administrators told them they were using the space—a large, storage-type room located in UCSD’s Student Center—“in an unauthorized manner.” This was news to Books for Prisoners.
“We have never had any issues in the years that we’ve been here,” Pecenco said. “We’ve only really had positive response from the work that we do.”
Books for Prisoners started in 2001 under the umbrella of Groundwork Books, a lefty, student-run bookstore also located in the UCSD Student Center. Inmates from prisons all over the U.S., and a few outside the U.S., send in letters, sometimes asking for specific books but usually just requesting a certain genre. Books are donated, and the money to ship them comes from an annual fundraiser. Books for Prisoners had been operating out of a 638-square-foot space that had been allocated to Groundwork Books in 2007 for storage. Since Books for Prisoners was started by Groundwork and has always been affiliated with Groundwork, they never thought that using the bookstore’s storage space was a problem. Pecenco said their book inventory filled 10 double-sided shelves and then some. They also have a huge archive of letters, artwork, poetry and other writings from prisoners, sent as thanks for the books.
The eviction notice, sent by University Centers Director Sharon Von Bruggen, said the space that Books for Prisoners was using had been deemed a “temporary storage space” for Groundwork, and that Groundwork “had no rights to assign the space to another organization.” The letter goes on to say that University Centers had notified Books for Prisoners “in person” that it would need to find another location and that, to do so, it would have had to make an official request to the student-run University Centers Advisory Board (UCAB) during the spring semester.
Pecenco says that, yes, University Centers had contacted Books for Prisoners last fall, asking to inspect the space. Pecenco wasn’t there for the inspection, but a volunteer who was told her that administrators were “impressed” with what Books for Prisoners had been able to do with the space and even asked if more bookshelves were needed.
“We had no idea that this was inappropriate in any manner,” Pecenco says. The room, she said, was, indeed, mainly used for storage. Books-packaging sessions, which draw up to 30 or 40 volunteers, were done in a patio area adjoining the space, where they'd set up folding tables.
Pecenco said they were told it was too late to put in a request for a space, but they could temporarily use the smaller storage closet. As for who's taking over the Groundwork storage space, "We asked [University Center administrators]... and were told that they would not provide us with that information," Pecenco said.
And even if no one moved into the space, Books for Prisoners was told, the group still couldn't remain there.
“We keep hoping that we’ll stumble upon something that says the space was formally allocated to us,” Pecenco said. "But from what we can find... there doesn’t seem to be any sort of, ‘This space was given to Books for Prisoners,’ at least as far as I can find. It just feels like, if these rules are in fact correct, they just weren’t enforcing them before.”
Books for Prisoners isn't the only UCSD student group in limbo. On June 16, The Che Café, an all-ages music venue that’s been in operation for more than three decades, was told to vacate its space after UCAB voted to cut the Che’s maintenance costs from its 2014-15 budget. (The Che has sued the university, and, on July 11, a judge granted a temporary stay against the eviction.)
Pecenco said she and other volunteers have scoured their records for any sort of formal warning they might have received prior to the eviction notice. They're certain they received none. Nor has University Centers been able to provide them with any record of communication besides the eviction letter, Pecenco said.
UCSD spokesperson Christine Clark reiterated that Books for Prisoners had been told that it wasn't allowed to sublease space from Groundwork Books and had been "verbally advised" to apply to UCAB for a separate space. Books for Prisoners is viewed by the university as a separate student organization, Clark says. She also provided CityBeat with an email that had gone out to all student organizations in late April, informing them of the space-allocation process. "Please remember," the email says, "organizations allocated a space for the current year (2013-14) must reapply if they wish to have space for the 2014-15 academic year. Organizations are not guaranteed a renewal of space."
Pecenco says she did receive that email—it's the same one she's received each year she's been with Books for Prisoners. "Since it's Groundwork's space, we never would have thought to ask the University Centers if we could use it," she says. Groundwork, being a bookstore, doesn't have to move each year. "Since we're part of Groundwork, we thought it was a non-issue. We had also been under the impression that the [administration] thought we were using the space well, and that we were not in any peril of losing it."
In the new storage space, there’s no room for bookshelves. So, volunteers are stacking boxes of books. They receive roughly 100 letters from prisoners each week, and Pecenco isn't sure how they're going to keep pace with requests, let alone accept book donations.
“Just seeing a bunch of unanswered letters is so difficult because we know how much it means to so many of the people who receive the packages,” she said.
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