While being held at Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center in New York City in 2008, Hernan Carvente, who was 16 at the time, noticed that a cart full of books would periodically pass through the facility. “Whenever that cart came around, you would see people immediately swarm, craving something to read,” Carvente told MTV News.
Thanks to that cart, Carvente read a book from start to finish for the first time. The book was The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks — not necessarily Carvente’s first choice, but he found it was a useful distraction and productive outlet while awaiting his official sentencing. Even after he was sentenced and incarcerated upstate, he kept the practice up.
“After I finished one [book], I just kept wanting to read more and more,” Carvente said. As time went on, and Carvente entered a secondary education program and then pursued his GED while incarcerated, he found that his time spent reading served him well. “My reading ability was super high and writing ability increased as a result,” he said. “I became very articulate and able to just talk differently to certain people.”
Carvente, who now works as the National Youth Partnership Strategist at Youth First Initiative, is just one of hundreds of young people who have benefitted from programs that donate books to incarcerated youth. Liberation Library, a Chicago-based program that has sent over 2,000 books to young people incarcerated across the state of Illinois since it began in 2015, is just one program doing this work.
“We believe access to books is a right and not a privilege,” Jocelyn Nelson, a Founding Steering Committee Member of Liberation Library, told MTV News. In a space where young people are “really devoid of personality or identity,” and “don’t have a lot of possessions,” she said, the program allows incarcerated youth “freedom of choice” when it comes to book selection and to keep those books to “continue to read or share with others.”
The book choices incarcerated youth do make, Nelson added, are telling. The young recipients tend to choose books that the reader either “identifi[ies] with a lot and [see] themselves in” or “books that let them escape the world they’re in — fantasy books.”
Perhaps one of the most important parts of the program, though, is the extra effort the folks at Liberation Library make when delivering the books.
“Every book that is sent out has a handwritten note and a bookmark that’s designed by young people or students or [a] volunteer,” Nelson said. “That moment of connection is really valuable.”
Liberation Library took this extra effort a step forward this holiday season. The organization always hosts “packing days” on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, during which volunteers package books for delivery to both prisons and Juvenile Temporary Detention Centers across the state. But on December 10, the group added a special element to the day: A holiday card drive, which this year resulted in 5,000 cards — enough to send two cards to every incarcerated young person across the state.
These cards remind incarcerated youth that “they’re cared for in this holiday season — a season which is really about family and about connection,” Nelson said.
Carvente echoed the importance of outsiders making that connection. While incarcerated, Carvente recalled that he and his peers recognized “whenever anybody came in and tried to show any bit of love and support or just recognition that we existed. I can personally say that I felt forgotten and those little moments [of connection] reminded me that there were people who cared.”
While Liberation Library operates on the belief that “incarceration as a whole is unjust and inhumane,” they aim to create a largely unparalleled opportunity for those in the system to “find the world of their choosing and learn and have a thirst for knowledge,” according to Nelson.
It’s a sentiment Carvente appreciates.
Incarcerated youth are “very much capable of change,” Carvente said. “If our response is to immediately close [incarcerated youth] out and/or think they’re incapable of change, then they’re not going to want to change. They’re going to continue engaging in behavior that might not only put them in harm’s way, but also put us in harm’s way.”
It’s our responsibility to recognize that these are our youth and whenever they fail, we all fail as a society.
Ultimately, Carvente asked, “Do you want a young person who is outside in the community, growing and thriving and giving back? Or do you want a young person who is going to come out and victimize or be victimized again?...it’s our responsibility to recognize that these are our youth and whenever they fail, we all fail as a society. They will come out [of jail] at some point and they will either be the PhD holder or holder of a much longer rap sheet. It’s on us whether or not we help them break the cycle of violence that they’re in.”