Student Transforms Classroom Assignment into Intervention for Incarcerated Youth

Sarah Shaney-Reeves, a student in the master’s degree (MSSW) program in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, has transformed a classroom assignment into a community project designed to promote prevention and rehabilitation among incarcerated youths in the Austin and Round Rock, Texas, communities.

MSSW student Sarah Shaney-Reeves directs Sending Solidarity book project for Texas certified youthful offenders incarcerated at the Clemens and Hilltop Units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Shaney-Reeves directs Sending Solidarity, a volunteer book project that is aligned with prison administrators’ efforts to provide opportunities of positive change for Texas certified youthful offenders incarcerated at the Clemens and Hilltop Units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Sending Solidarity encourages youthful offenders to write letters requesting books and literature of interest to them, then selects and mails a variety of developmentally appropriate books at various reading levels for offenders who range in age from 14 to 18 years. They may use and keep the books in their cells for their personal growth. The project also creates a connection from the offenders to community members.

Shaney-Reeves has partnered with the Inside Books Project (IBP), a Central Texas organization that sends free books and educational materials to people in prison to promote reading, literacy and education. IBP has allowed Shaney-Reeves access to its inventory of thousands of donated books. She has already raised funds to mail 200 books to juvenile male offenders housed in the Clemens Unit in Brazoria. Along with fellow MSSW students Gemma Mears and Jorge Antonio Renaud, Shaney-Reeves has laid the foundation for a program that could have far-reaching effects on local and incarcerated youth.

The idea for Sending Solidarity started as an “Advocacy-Speak Out” assignment in Shaney-Reeves’ Social Work Practice course taught by Clinical Associate Professor Kathy Armenta this spring. Armenta asked her students to choose a social justice issue, assess and identify a need, then make a plan to take action to raise awareness of the need by “speak[ing] out” about the issue. Shaney-Reeves used her classroom plan to create an actual community project.

“Juvenile justice has been a passion of mine since I taught in Title I elementary schools,” said Shaney-Reeves, who received her undergraduate degree in bilingual elementary education from UT Austin and taught for five years in schools in East Austin and Leander before entering the master’s degree program in social work.

“This project is particularly inspiring to me, because I had many students whose lives had been affected by family members who were involved in the criminal justice system or incarcerated,” Shaney-Reeves said. While taking lecturer Dr. Arlene Montgomery’s Neurobiology and Social Work course, Shaney-Reeves learned about the long-lasting effects of trauma and isolation on the still-developing adolescent brain. She decided to combat these effects in adolescents in TDCJ at the most basic level, by providing meaningful access to educational materials. The long-range goal of her project is to create a cycle of hope, connecting at-risk youth in the Austin and Round Rock communities with youthful offenders who are incarcerated. She hopes to have local youth correspond with youthful offenders in TDCJ by responding to their book requests, while also providing support and advice. She would like to expand the project by having local youth take the lead in publishing chapbooks of poetry written by incarcerated young men and women.

“I believe the voices of youthful offenders in TDCJ are powerful and life-changing. They can share their experiences and provide valuable information and insight to at-risk youth in our community. In turn, local youth can provide a lifeline of hope and community that transcends the wires and bars with paper, ink and words, and through this process, they will bring attention to an invisible population of young people, some as young as 14, who are locked up in adult prisons.”

“Ms. Reeves has captured the essence of the Speak Out assignment through her advocacy, initiative and creativity – but more importantly, she has developed an effective intervention to meet a need with an underserved population,” said Armenta. “Her project is a good example of how one person can be a change agent on individual and system levels.”

If you are interested in more information about Sending Solidarity or volunteering at the Inside Books Project, contact Shaney-Reeves: