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Detroit — When Ira Memaj is not working as a cancer researcher at Wayne State University, she uses her free time to collect and donate thousands of books to local correctional facilities and shelters.

On Friday, she traveled to the Detroit Reentry Center and delivered more than 1,000 books to the facility’s library in a quiet, two-person event.  

“Programs that are implemented in prisons nowadays mostly focus on gaining some type of skill or going through these sorts of motivational teachings that will make them turn ‘good,’” Memaj said. “I thought that was extremely problematic.”

Memaj is the founder of the Prison Book Drive Project, an organization she created while a sophomore at Wayne State in 2013. Now in her fifth year of managing the project, Memaj makes two trips a year to the Detroit Reentry Center to resupply its  library with books ranging from Nietzsche to graduate school testing preparation.

“The whole idea of the Prison Book Drive Project was to start some kind of educational opportunity for these inmates to continue their education and also the opportunity for higher education,” Memaj said.

Maurice Duke, the Detroit Reentry Center's librarian and acting chaplain, helped Memaj unload boxes of books from her car. Duke has been Memaj’s primary contact at the facility for the last five years, and the two have formed a close partnership.

“She has been tremendous all these past years, and the books help a lot,” Duke said. “Before, we had to make enough procurements from the prisoner benefit form to buy enough books from the bookstores, but now we don’t have to do all that. Everything is donated.”

Duke was the first person to respond to Memaj’s emails to local correctional facilities when she began the project. He said Memaj has done a great job responding to book requests from the facility’s prisoners and parolees.

“They love reading. They check the books out like regular public libraries, bring them back in two weeks and then recheck them out,” Duke said. “It’s been a tremendous help to me personally and the rest of the population we have here.”

In its first three years, the Prison Book Drive Project collected more than 5,000 books from Wayne State students, as well as the university’s English and communications departments. Memaj reached out to local bookstores and the Detroit Public Library for additional donations.  

Memaj said she measures the success of the program through continuous increases in donations and increased visibility of the project in the community.

“The first delivery I had 50 books,” she said. “So far this year we’ve done 1,200.”

Now, the project is supported by the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State and the Health Unit on Davison Avenue Clinic. Since the project began, Memaj has collected more than 8,000 books, all donated from the Detroit area.

The project accepts books throughout the year, and Memaj makes deliveries in the winter and summer. Books blocked from the Detroit Reentry Center for security reasons are delivered to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries shelters and the Mariners Inn shelter to ensure no book goes to waste.

Memaj says her background as an immigrant helped her appreciate the value of a high-quality education and made her want to find a way to give education to others. She and her family immigrated to the United States from Albania in 2004.

“I didn’t have the best access to education and coming to this country opened my eyes to what education can do,” she said. “So, I thought, ‘How can I start such a program?’”

Friday will be Memaj’s last personal delivery before she heads to Columbia University in the fall to pursue a medical degree and Ph.D. While the HUDA Clinic will oversee the operations of the book drive going forward, Memaj hopes to remain involved. 

“I really like keeping people in check, to not lose focus on why we started this project. It’s not like ‘Oh, we provided books and whatnot,’ and just be done with it,” Memaj said.

slubbers@detroitnews.com

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