Books Not Bars

03:44 min
Campaign Portrait
Director: Mark Landsman
Producer: Mark Landsman

Winner of the Criminal Justice Award


More About Books Not Bars from WITNESS

Public spending to support increased incarceration is booming while spending for public education has dwindled dramatically. Youth of color are being discriminated against in their neighborhoods, in their schools, and in the courts, where an African-American youth is 48 times more likely to be convicted of a drug offense than a white peer. In response to these critical issues, WITNESS joined together with Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to produce Books Not Bars, a documentary about the inspiring youth-led movement against the growth of the prison industry in the U.S. After two years of collaborative campaigning with the Ella Baker Center and other groups the “Super-Jail for Kids” proposal in Alameda County, California, which was on the verge of becoming one of the biggest per capita youth jails in the country, was derailed in part by the efforts of the BOOKS NOT BARS campaign.


Books Not Bars premiered at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in August of 2001. It premiered on the WITNESS website in April 2002 as a Rights Alert and was introduced by hip-hop musician Q-Tip, with links provided for viewers to take action. Major screenings were sponsored by the Colombia Law School Human Rights Institute with additional facilitated screenings at NYU, Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College. The video has also been used in classrooms across the United States, screened at meetings of philanthropists, and excerpts have been included at venues such as the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London 2003.

WITNESS has worked with the co-producers of the project to distribute the video widely to activists and other key players in the debate around the growing presence of the prison-industrial complex. To that end, the Open Society Institute supported a national mailing to 300 youth activists and educators offering the video and lesson plans at a reduced price in 2002. WITNESS also distributed Books Not Bars to more than 250 business and nonprofit leaders and philanthropists to raise their awareness of the profit motive in the drive for expansion of the prison-industrial complex. The video and accompanying lesson plans developed by Street Law will be distributed to 300 public libraries beginning in March 2004 through the National Video Resources Human Rights Video Project.


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