A Conversation with Gary Fine

March 3, 2022
via Zoom

Gary Fine was born and raised on Long Island during the midpoint of what has sometimes been called the American Century. He saw his own family and many others choking on that prosperity. A deep hunger for experiences more nourishing and equitable led him down many pathways. He drove cars cross-country, worked with a fruit picking crew, worked at a group home for troubled youth, grew and sold sprouts and wheatgrass in Seattle. Eventually his wandering led him to the hills outside of Ithaca, New York. Besides watching his children grow up, he kept busy developing a body/mind focused massage therapy practice and for five years managed the local food co-op. He currently sits on the board of the Food Justice Projects, whose mission addresses food equity and sustainability, and is especially focused on the black and brown community in his region. For the past 23 years, he has been working at the Durland Alternatives Library. The library’s collection provides alternative perspectives on current social issues, and it is free and open to everyone. He has used his time at the library to develop the Prisoner Express program and help fulfill the library’s mission to provide for underserved populations.


GREEN: To start, Gary, can you explain a little about your background? I know about Prisoner Express, but you are also the director of the Durland Alternatives Library. How did you end up there? Is your background in library sciences?

FINE: No, my background has been more in activism—I don’t even know if that’s a correct statement. I loved the library, and I’ve always loved reading, and I was a patron for many years before I worked at the Alternatives Library. I don’t know why I was hired. I had a bachelor’s degree in history; I had been a social studies teacher for a short while, but mostly I have been self-employed, and I managed the local food co-op in town. My guess is that I was a known commodity to the people who were hiring, and because the director of the library knew that I was somebody who got the job done, if that makes any sense.

GREEN: When was that?

FINE: I was hired in 1999.

GREEN: Ah, so then just a few years later you got that letter that kicked off Prisoner Express.

FINE: Right. The director of the library at the time, Lynn Anderson, had worked with me at the food co-op years earlier, and she had gotten the library job after that, and she also had an interest in social justice. She’d been doing a program with teen boys at a local high-security lockup in our community called Camp MacCormick—though it’s not a camp, it’s a prison for youthful offenders who have committed adult-type crimes. She was running a program working on poetry and writing with some of the kids there, and so I was helping her with that when we got the letter from Danny Harris. I didn’t get the letter; the library got the letter, but I took the time to answer it.

The thing to understand is that this Alternatives Library is always a work in progress, because what’s alternative today is different from what was alternative 30 years ago or will be 30 years from now. One of the things that Lynn and I both resonated with was serving under-served populations. She did that by working with the kids at Camp MacCormick. And I think she really embraced and allowed me—she was the director; I was the assistant director at the time—as much freedom as I wanted with this program. The library never funded it; I had to raise all the money for it, but the library provides a lot of intangible funding. You don’t see the dollar signs, but there are a lot of services that we get through my affiliation with the library.

GREEN: So this library is on the campus of Cornell, right?

FINE: Right.

GREEN: And what is the “alternative?” What does that mean?

FINE: There’s a history to the library. The initial endowment was given in memory of Anne Carry Durland; it’s the Anne Carry Durland Memorial Alternatives Library. She was a social activist who died an untimely death, and her father was well connected at Cornell. He left the sum of money to be endowed for an alternatives library that would be perpetually housed in Anabel Taylor Hall. Cornell, in accepting the endowment, accepted this library.

So, the library was indirectly born out of the time of activism on the Cornell campus in the ’60s. Daniel Berrigan was the assistant director of Cornell United Religious Work and a lot of the campus protest originated from there. From that energy, an affiliate at Cornell was formed, the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy. The folks at CRESP worked at securing permanent funding for the library. In the founding documents from 1974, the rationale of the library was articulated. “Beyond the questions of material subsistence are the more profound considerations of the psychological and spiritual impact of a highly technological and rapidly changing society. Many find themselves alone and bereft of direction and a sense of community. The necessity for such a community resource is evident. Increasingly, people need access to people-oriented material, which provides impetus to both thought, and action-material, which speaks to their needs and aspiration.” CRESP since has been renamed the Center for Transformative Action and continues to be a nonprofit incubator. We receive our 501(c)3 nonprofit status through our affiliation with CTA.

At first, the library focused alternative perspectives on current social issues utilizing a collection of small, independent presses. The Cornell Library system has millions of books, and we often enjoyed the status of having the only copy of certain books on campus. Over the years that has changed as the needs of the population aren’t the same. When I started working here, for example, I managed magazine subscriptions of 250 to 300 periodicals. They weren’t all used, but it was almost like the pre-internet of alternative literature. Someone could come and browse and say, “Oh I didn’t even know this was an issue; I didn’t even know that people were writing about these things.” We were getting publications that might only last for a year or two, or things that lasted for a long time: periodicals, books, eventually VHS, CDs. But with the rise of the internet, people don’t really come looking for strange things from us; it’s available everywhere. So we’re redefining ourselves all the time.

We also were a meeting place for groups and individuals who were interested in social justice and the materials that we collected. It’s not just social justice, because some materials are more like do-it-yourself, sustainable farming or community building, so it’s hard to put everything under the social justice realm. Health, spirituality, personal transformation and sustainability are also primary concerns of our collection.

We still have our books, and we have become a center that helps underserved populations with a lot of library services through our prison program. We also provide students with the ability to volunteer and participate. As volunteers they are exposed to our whole collection on all sorts of subjects, and they begin to see that their actions matter and can have profound effects on people.

I have mostly let all of our magazine subscriptions lapse, and I hate doing that, but I just couldn’t see the point of subscribing—I guess it goes back to how alternative is always changing, and magazines are not something people seem to be turning to. Before, people would constantly be requesting old issues of this or that to look at. It’s been a long time since anybody was doing that.

We’re always on a cutting edge of who we are becoming. For example, this year we’re starting a seed library so people can come who want to garden, and we’ll have seeds and materials on how to garden. We have the freedom to be whatever the moment calls for, and underneath it, we still have this collection of books that is a tremendous resource. I know this because we send books out through interlibrary loan, and I see that for a very small library, we get a lot of requests for our material from the many counties that are served by our local Finger Lakes Library System.

GREEN: It’s interesting to hear that description. Rattle used to appear in many libraries, and over the years it just shrinks. It makes sense, because you can get the stuff online; why would people have to be looking for issues? Books in print are fading away. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]He sent back a letter thanking me for writing him like he was a real human being and saying how much that meant to him, just getting a letter, and how mail was important. And he said, “Paper, pencil, and books are the ways I stay sane.[/perfectpullquote]

FINE: Very quickly. It’s more than fading away; it’s just that we’re living it, so while we’re living it, it feels like it’s fading away, but it’s transforming really rapidly. Just look at our local community newspaper—it’s worthless now. There’s nothing in it that’s local except the obits. It’s a few pages and nobody reads it anymore. I’m a reader; I would read the paper cover to cover, and now I never bother with it.

GREEN: It’s a shame, but it’s amazing too—like what we’re doing right now, which could be broadcast live with one click of a button. It’s as big of a revolution as Gutenberg.

FINE: You know, it’s always the blowback part of it that you can’t see, the unintended consequences of it all. I don’t want to be negative, but it doesn’t feel as stable as having a paper copy of something, having it electronically. You can protect that paper copy; it’s harder for me as an individual to protect my electronic access than it is for me to protect the information on a piece of paper. I have a feeling that what we take to be secure is not as secure as we understand it to be.

GREEN: That’s a good point. So, as you were director of the program, the library received this letter from Danny Harris. Explain that and describe how the Prisoner Express program came to be.

FINE: Danny wrote a letter—maybe 2000, 2001—just asking for books. I don’t know how he heard about the library. He was in Huntsville, Texas, at the time and asked for books. I wrote him back a friendly letter that said, “Sorry, we don’t have any service where we send books to people in prison like that.” He sent back a letter thanking me for writing him like he was a real human being and saying how much that meant to him, just getting a letter, and how mail was important. And he said, “Paper, pencil, and books are the ways I stay sane. I have no window in my cell; I’m there 23 hours a day. Once a day I move out to a bigger cell that has no ceiling.” It was an outdoor cell, for one hour, but it was still a cell by himself, and he could see three other people in other cells then, because it met at a corner, and that was his socializing for the day. He painted a very compelling picture.

I was fortunate because the library had a book sale—we periodically go through our shelves and clear off what doesn’t seem appropriate so we can get more materials into our limited space. A lot of people donated books to us to help us raise money for the book sale too, and when the sale ended, we still had 30, 40, 50 boxes of books. I went through them and I got rid of a lot of them, but I took about 10 or 15 boxes of books, and I said, “These are great books; I don’t want to get rid of these, but I don’t know what to do with them,” and I stashed them in this room in the basement of the building that had been a garbage room for years; it was just full of stuff that nobody wanted.

So when I got the letter, I had these books downstairs that I wanted to do something with. I was able to send him a box, and he went crazy over them; he was very grateful—you know, Christmas in July. He’s a very talented writer, so it was easy for me to become captivated, and he also set the stage for me being able to reinforce to prisoners that, while their bodies are in prison, their minds are free, and their words matter. And it matters enough that his simple letter got me doing this program for the past 20 years. So, they should take a chance at writing, too, and tell what they need, because their words do matter.

It started with one letter, then it went to four or five people writing me. Then there was a local organization called Books Through Bars that had been sending books to New York prisoners, but they advertised nationally, and they got a lot of letters from people who weren’t in New York. I said I would take those letters, and that’s how I got started. Their responses, besides being grateful, all carried the same elements: “I hate everybody around me, especially people who are different than me,” “I’m going crazy,” “I can never tell people how I really feel because if I show any kind of kindness or realness, it’ll be seen as vulnerability and people will take advantage of me,” and, “Mail is the most important thing to me.”

I heard that over and over again in these letters, and I didn’t know how to deal with it directly, because I can’t write to 30 or 40 people—it’s hard to stay fresh writing an individual letter to 30 or 40 people; I say the same stuff all the time. So that’s when it came up—perhaps you’ve seen The Sun magazine, and their Readers Write column—an idea for a writing project. I wrote to the prisoners, “Every month I’ll give you a topic to write on, and if you write something on it, you’ll get a copy of what everybody else writes, and you’ll get a letter from me with that copy,” and it started like that. A few people would write on these essay topics, and they could be anything from friendship to failure to miracles to, you know, feet—any topic is possible.

Their writing was really good, and it was obvious that reading each other’s writing was profound for them. They’re not allowed to write to one another in prison—you lose a roommate, he’s gone; you can’t stay in touch with them. Often by design, they’re kept separate. In reading these letters, it was clear that once they were exposed to one another’s thoughts, it just melted away so quickly—like, “Oh, I thought I hated black/brown/green/yellow/pink people, but this guy and me, we’re brothers,” and, “I thought I was going crazy, but they think the same way I do. I’m in a crazy-making place; this is really hard.”

The third thing was that they all started writing, “Oh, I so appreciated that person sharing their vulnerability and their story and the realness of it; I want to do that too.” You know, “I’m a tough guy on the outside, but at night I’m crying”—they would write that, but they could never say it to one another. Writing became a way for prisoners to really express themselves. My first intent was that if prisoners started writing, that it would be useful to them, but the power of reading each other’s writing was my first big discovery. I don’t know much about prison life. I did not understand how segregated they were, how much was in their heads going round and round and round. When it comes out in writing, it makes it a little more linear; it makes it easier to build cause and effect: “This is what I did, and this is what happened, and if I did this, maybe this would happen.”

Once that happened, I still had hundreds, thousands of people who were asking for books. We started as a free book program, but I couldn’t really do the books the way I wanted to; I just didn’t have the resources. When the word gets out that you’re sending books to prisons, you get thousands of people writing for books, and it’s understandable that they want them, so we changed our book program to asking for eight stamps donated for postage. We still send thousands of book packages to prisoners every year, but our focus changed when the theme writing program took off. The writing was so good, and the effects were so profound, I wanted to share the writing with all the people in the book program who had ever written us, while they were waiting for months for a book package. So that’s when we started a semi-annual newsletter, and the newsletter would have a section where it highlighted writing from the theme topics. Once we had the newsletter going, now we’re in conversation with everybody all at once, so what else can we do?

Some of the first things we started are still ongoing: We have an ongoing journal program, and many hundreds of prisoners keep journals, send them to us, and we scan them. Before the pandemic, we would have groups of students come in each evening to volunteer. They’d read a journal and write a letter; or they’d read poetry and write a letter back to the prisoners; or they’d look at their art and write a letter; or they’d type their theme essays and write a letter. So we had a lot of letter writing going on.

One time I had a high school student who was volunteering. Toby was responding to prisoner poetry. She told me, “These are great; I want to put together an anthology of my favorites,” and I said, “Go ahead, and let’s mail it to everybody who’s in the anthology.” So we put out volume one, and in the next newsletter we said, “Send us your poems. You may or may not be included in the anthology, but everybody who sends a poem gets a copy of the anthology.” Right now we’re working on Anthology 26, which means for 13 or so years we’ve put out two poetry compilations. Typically they’re only about 28 pages. I just got Anthology 25 to the printer, and there are 500 people who are going to get it. They’re not all included in it, but those who are love having their poems in print, and they get to read everybody else’s poems.

I say to them, “If you want to be a good writer, start reading. Write, and read what other people write to get ideas, because you can borrow their ideas and make them your own.” I like history, so often we would do history-related packets. Civil War or pre-Columbian America. We did one on Ghana. I look for volunteers to put together a packet of interesting material about a subject. Most of our packets are call-and-response style, so there’ll be a lesson on history and then a call to compare and contrast, or, “How is this like now?” Prisoners don’t have the ability to do research, but they have the ability to think. So they respond to these questions and then we print out a compilation document of the most interesting responses, and it’s like being published, and it is an acknowledgement that you exist, that you matter. If you think about living in a cave and somebody flashes a little beam of light in there, it’s a big deal, right? It’s like they’re in a cave and our efforts put in a lot of light.

Every newsletter has about nine or so different offerings for the following cycle; think of it as like a college semester, and there’s nine or so courses you can choose from, and you’re encouraged to only sign up for the ones you’re going to really do, because it’s like slices of pie— the more people who participate the less resources we have for each participant. The more who sign up for this, the less we can afford, because everything costs money: photocopying, postage. At the same time, we don’t turn anybody down, and we encourage them to sign up for anything they think they’re interested in, and of course they’re encouraged to share it.

GREEN: To go back to the last point, that’s the reason why print is so important, because it has a shelf life beyond where you expect it to go.

FINE: Right, and prison is like we’re back in the 20th century. I mean, I grew up in the 20th century, I know how to function there, and so that does work for me.

GREEN: How common is Danny’s experience now? Is being isolated for 23 hours the norm?

FINE: It’s still really common. Some states are changing it; they say it’s a form of torture. I know nothing firsthand, but I know enough from reading their writing that it’s punishment, not rehabilitation. So many prisoners write things like, “I came in here without the ability to make good decisions, with very little good information, without knowing how to take responsibility, so what do they do? They don’t give me any responsibility, they give me no decisions, and they give me no education. What’s going to happen when I get out of here?” Or, “I’ve got to do something. I have to do something. Nature abhors a vacuum. If I don’t have something good to do, I’m going to find something bad to do, and so thank you so much for giving me something to do that I can feel good about.” [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You don’t go to prison without having some trauma.[/perfectpullquote]

For most people in prison, I think it’s encouraged to be heavily medicated, and to sit and do nothing. That’s the ideal prisoner, sit and do nothing—but you can’t selectively numb. I wish you could, that you could selectively numb and say, “Everything’s good except I’m numbing this area,” but when a person numbs, they numb everything.

Our programs are like the antidote to that; they’re all things that keep you creatively engaged but push the world away. I always use chess as the analogy. Early on we started a chess project, because so many prisoners were asking for chess books and we couldn’t keep up with the demand. Just like I didn’t know that lots of prisoners love to write poetry or read history, hundreds of our prisoners love to play chess, and they get lost in it. Think about it—you’re totally focused on what’s in front of you. You could be in a park; you could be in your house; you could be in prison, but there’s your focus, and it’s like the whole rest of the world disappears. When you’re in prison, it’s such an onerous environment, having that disappear for a while is almost refreshing.

So every six months, we’ll mail out a packet full of chess puzzles, strategies, information on famous players in the game. Sometimes we do a beginning chess packet to bring people up to speed. We have a highly developed art program led by Treacy Zeigler, a local artist that functions in a similar way. Our programs are meant to be accessible and to take you out of your current situation so you can be something other than a prisoner. For example in the poetry program, of course you can write poems all you want about being a prisoner, but incarcerated men and women are also fully functioning human beings, so they are encouraged to write poems about anything. You’re not limited. We don’t need to hear about the details of their prison experience exclusively, though of course they’re welcome to share that.

GREEN: Is there any research into recidivism rates? Giving you something to value and feel good about is an important thing, but also, I did an interview in our last issue with James Pennebaker, the psychologist, who talks about expressive writing as a way to heal psychologically. Repressing your trauma causes actual physical problems, and it doesn’t let you integrate and come to an understanding of what you’ve been through, so you can’t psychologically heal if you can’t share your story. So it seems like it would be a great project as far as helping people heal and be better when they get out. Has there been any kind of evidence of that?

FINE: Only anecdotally. I don’t run scientific experiments, but I think a hundred percent you’ll find people agreeing that the way of dealing with trauma is not burying it. Trauma doesn’t get better when you stick it in your body. You want to face your trauma, even if it’s re-experienced, or just let it be with you facing it; that’s how you disperse it. Writing is a tremendous tool in reinvigorating and bringing back up the things that you’ve clamped down. I have these heart-rending stories of prisoners who write of their traumatic experiences. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]So, we’re about providing people with meaningful activity. If you feel what you’re doing is meaningful, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the president or you’re picking apples, there’s a sense of satisfaction about how you spent your day and how your life is going.[/perfectpullquote]

GREEN: You have to talk to somebody, and if there’s nobody to talk to …

FINE: Absolutely. You don’t go to prison without having some trauma. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do something bad or you don’t deserve to be there, but you still will be better off if you can process and go through your trauma before you get out, as opposed to keeping it all in, and being numb, and then you come out and there’s no bars on your door anymore, and all of a sudden what shows up is pretty scary.

From early on, before I was even thinking about trauma, there are a lot of studies that say education reduces recidivism, and so I see myself as an educational project. Also, I don’t say this to everybody, but I do see it as a ministry, and the prisoners see it that way; they say, “It’s like a ministry, but we don’t have to do anything with Jesus or God, so thank you, because we need this, but we don’t want to have to do Jesus.” A lot of people are very much religion-oriented in our group, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you don’t have to be religious to be a part of something bigger than you. We offer shared values that prisoners can ascribe to and support and feel part of. Providing creative meaningful activity, education, and a sense of belonging are tools for reducing recidivism.

We have a lot of Cornell students volunteering, because we are housed on the campus. I had a group of students come in last week who were doing an assignment about life sentences, and they wanted to read journals from people doing life. One student said, “Well, don’t you think they deserve to have bad things happening to them because what they did was bad?” My response to him was that prisons are not meant to torture people, and it costs more to keep them housed than to send you to Cornell. I mean, if they have to be in a prison then it’s fine, but wouldn’t we want to try to offer services that would give them education and the ability to be productive people in society rather than foot the bill to keep them incarcerated? When you shut people down for five or ten years in a cell and put them back out, you can reasonably expect that they have not learned any new skills. The only hope is that the punishment has been so bad that they’ll never do it again. I guess if you keep people for 30 years in there, you probably can get them old enough that they’re never going to do it again, but if you give them five, six, seven, eight years, you’ve just wasted everybody’s time and money, because nothing’s changed and statistics show that many are going to do it again.

So, we’re about providing people with meaningful activity. If you feel what you’re doing is meaningful, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the president or you’re picking apples, there’s a sense of satisfaction about how you spent your day and how your life is going. That’s why we have a wide range of projects, so we can find something that’s meaningful.

GREEN: Have you had any interaction with the prison management itself? Are they happy that you’re doing this, or do they just completely ignore you? Or are they a pain in the ass and try to get in your way?

FINE: All of the above, and it’s because it’s not the prison system, often; it’s people. First, contacting prisons can be frustrating. They put you on endless holds that go nowhere or transfer you to numbers that go nowhere, so you just get discouraged really fast. Then there’s the letters that tell you mail is undeliverable and give you a very short time to correct it, and by the time you get the letter, the 10-day period is over. There are a lot of structural things in the prison system that work against us.

Here’s a small weedy thing just to give you an idea. It was really easy and cheap to make the packets we distribute, leave a space for a mailing label, put some stickers on the packets to seal them up, and put them in the post box, but now you can’t use mailing labels for most states. That means if you’re sending out 4,000 newsletters, and you can’t use a mailing label, you have to put everything in envelopes. I have to print thousands of envelopes with each individual name on there, as opposed to just printing sheets of mailing labels, which are really easy and don’t jam the printer. And for what, just so I don’t use mailing labels? Often the mail is taken out of the envelopes before it is delivered. The policies of the prison mailrooms keeps me up at night muttering to myself.

I get it—they’re worried about drugs coming in, but I can’t put mailing labels on envelopes because they take the envelopes away, but you can put a stamp on it, and there’s glue on the envelope; it just makes no sense. You asked, “Do they work with you?” I’m a non-profit providing education materials for prisoners, but that doesn’t matter. Some prisons say it has to be a bound publication; other people say, “Oh no, if it’s not bound, it’s too many pages,” or, “We don’t accept bound publications, but if it’s loose it’s too many loose pages, and we can’t deliver this.” I could just go on and on.

Each state is like a little fiefdom that has a different rule than its neighboring state, so if it’s just me mailing John Smith, who’s my neighbor, a letter, then it’s not a problem and I can figure it out, but me mailing John Smith in 50 different states—it’s a nightmare. But we keep finding the lowest common denominator that we have to find to make it work. It becomes more expensive, but I don’t know any other way.

GREEN: Yeah, I’ve dealt with that on a smaller scale, just getting some subscriptions to people. Some will say that it has to come straight from the press and be wrapped in plastic and others say that it can’t. Some say it can’t have staples, so those get rejected, and some say it has to come from you personally in an envelope and it can’t come from the printer. But it seems like they would encourage programs like these, because they would keep the population happier and more productive and content.

FINE: It’s a mixed bag. I mean, there are probably some incredible, lovely people in the corrections industry, and there are probably a lot of very angry people who work in the corrections industry. We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and we’re not stopping. We have an active membership of about 4,000. We do no advertising; it’s all word of mouth. So, it’s working. Would it be bigger if there wasn’t so much censorship? Yeah, but could I handle more? I don’t know. I don’t advertise, because if I advertised, and I had twenty thousand people write me, I’d get overwhelmed. 4,000 is the number we can handle pretty well right now, and I know we can handle more. It’s just then you have to raise even more money; it’s always about raising more money.

GREEN: You mentioned one student who asked, “Don’t they deserve what they’re going through because of what they’ve done?” How do you, as a nonprofit, deal with that, because some of the people have done some awful things, obviously. We’ve published many poets in prison, some of them on death row for murder. I think that this is a healing thing that helps the world, but I can understand the perspective of the victims’ families, too. We need to live in a society that allows for growth and healing and for people to improve or else they won’t, but it’s very difficult to balance.

FINE: There’s two different issues, really. There’s a societal issue and there’s a personal issue. As a society, it’s clear we don’t gain by making people worse off than they were when they went in. It doesn’t help us; it costs us. There’s a lot of cost to burying them in jails. Mental illness, drug addiction, unemployment, families breaking up early on with kids—there’s a lot of stuff that ends up being treated by the criminal justice system because we don’t deal with it earlier; we don’t know how to deal with it. I’ve seen mental illness up close; I don’t know how to deal with it.

So I understand that some of these things aren’t easy to deal with, and as a society we’ve got to come up with a strategy that’s best for society. For the individual, I understand it’s a lot of pain. I understand that the person did a horrible thing to your family, and you’re right that we don’t want to do anything to glorify them, and I’m really sorry that their writing hurt you. If their writing was hateful, I would never publish it. If their writing is about redemption or about what life is like for them, then I think it is valuable, and I’m sorry if I’ve made it in such a way that you think I’m glorifying them, because I do recognize that many people do need to be separated from general society.

We don’t want to encourage people doing horrible things, but these things have already been done, and the punishment is separation from society. The punishment shouldn’t be torture or deprivation; the punishment should be separation: You’re not fit to be around other people without supervision; that’s an appropriate punishment. As a state, our aim is to see prisoners get the skills they need to thrive and to learn the skills to be around other people without causing harm. If you can’t be around other people, then our next thing is to figure out how to make you a productive person within incarceration. If we don’t know that the state can release you, then how can you be productive, what skills can you learn, that can be utilized to have a better life for yourself in prison and do society some good?

People in prison can be paid a few cents an hour to manufacture things and profit companies that contract with authorities. I’m sure there are skills and jobs incarcerated men and women can do that could be compensated at a livable rate, so they can have good food—feeding them really crappy food and having them go through diabetes and hypertension and all the different diseases of incarceration is expensive too. We do packets on health and nutrition, and I always think, well, it can’t be, “Eat kale because it’s good for you”—they don’t have it. So we have to do things about taking care of yourself and eating properly and how food is digested and having a good mental attitude—but it should not be a privilege to eat well. That’s a problem throughout America. I serve on another nonprofit called the Food Justice Project, and it’s all about how access to healthy, unprocessed food is something everybody should have. Not feeding children well creates big consequences down the line. Who wants to pay for disease control that could have been prevented by feeding people decently when they’re young? I guess that’s my take on it, and that’s what I said to the student.

GREEN: To kind of wrap it up, where do you see Prisoner Express going moving forward? How much growth can you even handle, and also how can people help support the project?

FINE: Well, you know, I don’t think about this. I’ve never thought about where we’re going, because it’s always just enough to manage what’s happening today. We’ve always been working in reaction to things prisoners share with us rather than leading. We perceive what people are asking for, and we try to give it to them. What’s changing is that the whole mail system in the last two years in prison has gotten more and more shaky, because there are more and more individual states making individual arrangements for how their mail is going.

It could very well be that eventually everything will be electronic. I don’t know how prisoners don’t already get a tablet when they come in. You know the administration can control what they see on the internet; you know they can set filters on these things. I mean, it would almost make us not needed if they could go online to a public library and download a book on a tablet and read it. So I could see the possible elimination of a lot of what we do if they just gave prisoners these very inexpensive resources to gather material. But as usual, the tablets turn out to be a for-profit thing, and the prisoners have to pay about the equivalent of a stamp to send an email. They tell us to send our stuff through it, but then they tell us that every page is like a letter, so if you send 10 pages it might cost you five dollars.

So we’re reacting and responding and looking for the best ways to keep going. To me, it seems like it almost should change overnight, that everybody should just get a tablet. If that happens, there’s still going to be a need for writing; there might still be a need for books; there’s still a need for hearing each other. Certainly the need to feel connected to society and people outside of prison is not going away. What we do is provide a forum for prisoners to hear each other, and for people in the “free world” to participate in the conversation. That’s where the healing and growth is.

The other thing we do is provide a forum where they get stimulation, because otherwise they’ve got nothing sometimes. When you’re in prison, you were a drug addict who ripped everybody off around you, or you hurt the people around you. Some people have strong family connections, and I’m glad for them, but the people who write us often say, “I’ve been in for 20 years; everybody I knew is dead, and you’re my family now.” I think that part is why I started the program. In my own personal life, my family fell apart really early on. I was in a bad situation, and having a book to read made all the difference in the world when I was younger. So I know why I do this—you asked about my history, and why I do it, and it’s because reading was a way that I managed to get through really difficult times. So we’re going to keep helping people get through really difficult times; that’s our goal.

As far as expanding, what I need to do if this program is going to grow is to find either an intern or the money to hire somebody to take on more of it, because the need is so much bigger than anything we’re able to meet. In fact, I lose volunteers, because some of the people who really glimpse the big hole that is there in the soul of prisons—the need is so intense that it depresses the volunteers, because no matter what they give it’s never enough. I’m fortunate that it doesn’t touch me that way. I see every little thing we do as a contribution—you know, half-empty versus half-full. As far as I can tell, both the volunteers and the prisoners value the benefits they receive from participation in the Prisoner Express program.

GREEN: Well, if anyone wants to contribute, prisonerexpress.org is where they can find it, and there’s a donation button.

FINE: Visit our website. You can read the past newsletters, poetry anthologies, see samples of past educational packets, and access our online database of prisoner poetry, art, and journals. There are easy instructions for writing to prisoners, and people have the option of using our return address and we scan prisoner responses to them. We also have ways people can volunteer both in person and remotely. We do need help with fundraising. Raising funds for another staff person on board would make this effort more sustainable. Anyone who feels motivated to help, donate, or get more information can write us.

Also please know the Durland Alternatives Library is a beautiful, welcoming space on the Cornell University campus. Our materials are available for anyone to borrow, and it is a great place to sit and read and explore the amazing creativity contained within our book collection. Anyone reading this is welcome to come and hang out, have a cup of tea, and engage with our program. We have two inspiring 16-foot- long collages outside the library made up of prisoner art, poetry, journals, and personal letters that capture the essence of what we do.

GREEN: Thanks so much, Gary, for talking to me again, and I loved hearing more detail about the great project you’re doing.

FINE: Well, thank you. Any attention we get is always welcome. I thought about reading some letters to you today. I should have read this one—it was a guy who sent me something he wrote that was being published in another place, and he said, “I just wanted you to know, you guys got me writing—never thought about this until I got a copy of your magazine, and I started writing, and now I love writing”—that kind of letter. It’s not always that I get them, but it’s not unusual to get people talking about where they’re at now versus where they were, and how this was the lever that got them going somewhere else.

You were asking where I see us going—I just want to stay being that lever. We’re small; we can’t do a lot, but if we could leverage people and propel them into a new place, they’ll take care of the rest of it. Now, as I think of it, that’s where we fit in. It’s a catalyst—the catalyst doesn’t really stay around but the catalyst creates a new reaction, and we see ourselves as a catalyst. I really feel like the writings the prisoners send are in a cauldron, and we pull out some of their writings and display it to other prisoners, but it’s all simmering somewhere.

GREEN: That’s a great way to put it and a great way to end the interview.

from Rattle #76, Summer 2022