“Opening Windows into Other Worlds,” an article about Volunteering at Prisoner Express

Interested in volunteering at Prisoner Express, but not sure yet? Wondering how community engagement can impact your life? Learn more about how volunteers at PE found personal growth and transformation through their experiences in “Opening Windows into Other Worlds,” an article written by the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement at Cornell.

Opening windows into other worlds

The possibilities of a community-engaged experience

Editor’s note: Community-engaged experiences have the capacity to expand awareness by inviting those from various corners of the world to connect and see each other’s unique perspective. These experiences can foster commonality and compassion and can plant the seeds for significant personal growth. These experiences can inspire transformative thinking and action.

The Durland Alternatives Library’s Prisoner Express Program is an example of the creation and impact of these connections. In this post, Cornell students, the founder of PE and prisoners who have participated in the program share how Prisoner Express has touched their lives in authentic and extraordinarily meaningful ways.

Art by Robery Gray

Hailey Shapiro ’22, former Prisoner Express volunteer coordinator

“Prisoner Express taught me about the major systemic problems with the criminal legal system and the human rights abuses that many people involved in the justice system face. People shared their experiences with the justice system through essays, letters, poetry, and artwork. Through these exchanges, I learned about some of the abuses that the system inflicts upon people. For instance, prisons deny people access to their family members, mental health care, human interactions, art supplies. PE participants also taught me about people’s incredible resilience and creativity despite structural constraints.

“PE has been my lifeline as a window into the world outside of Cornell courses. I had the opportunity to develop pen pal relationships with people in very different environments, and to learn from their stories and perspectives. I had the chance to join a community of people passionate about working towards something that is bigger than just grades or tests.”

Excerpt from a letter from prison:

Thanks for motivating me to write. It was part of my recovery.

— Keith Pertusio

Kate Doherty ’24, Prisoner’s Express writing programs coordinator

“Working at Prisoner Express has given me a glimpse into lives that I would have never seen otherwise. I believe my time here has made me a more empathetic person and cultivated a belief that creative expression opens doors to healing. The sheer gratitude and insight that comes forward in the letters is moving, and confirms that what PE does makes a real difference.

“Reading letters and essays from prisoners this year, I began to notice common themes. Everyone seemed to be looking for connection and seeking a sense of purpose. Living in pandemic times, I could empathize with the struggles of isolation and boredom. I have access to so many forms of entertainment and educational materials that prisoners do not. So I thought I could use my access to bring something interesting to curious people without it.”

Excerpt from a letter from prison:

You have helped me muster up the courage to take a risk and display my soul for all to see.

— Leonard Kyle

Sanjna Das ’21, Prisoner Express volunteer

“The beautiful thing about art (at least in the visual sense) is that it transcends time and culture, instead appealing to our emotions. It can be understood universally and as such wields immense power as an agent of social change. Yet, on a more fundamental level, it allows us to express ourselves without restraint….

“I first started considering art and its meaning carefully in Spring of 2021, when I worked with Gary [Fine}, the director of Prisoner Express, and three others to create a virtual art and poetry show titled ‘Isolation Intensified: Art and Poetry from Incarcerated Folks During COVID-19.’”

Excerpt from a letter from prison:

Reach deep, reach past the hurting point, share with you fellow writers the ghost of your past and how you have learned to tame them. PE has been a true blessing in my life, and I hope this blessing reaches each and every one of you as well.

— Bobby Bunderson

Gary Fine, Prisoner Express founder

“Many of the student volunteers and work-study students benefited from participation as much as the prisoners. Many of the students volunteering in our program are under academic and social pressures and they find a release from that stress by doing this work. They also get a greater perspective on life and the possible realities that people face. It makes them more appreciative of what they do have.

“We have many hundreds of Cornell students volunteer every semester and our work-study students lead them in the service projects and supervise the volunteer activities. Without this structure we could not respond to the many thousands of requests we receive every year with a variety of interactive educational programs focused on creative writing, art, science, history, crafts, chess, meditation and more.”

It all started with a letter — Gary’s Story

Art by Edward Rodriguez

Prisoner Express is made possible by