By Samantha Wilson
City on a Hill Press Reporter

For many prisoners in the United States, turning to a new novel is the most favorable, and sometimes only, source of entertainment during incarceration.

Former UC Santa Cruz student Ilya Arbatman, a volunteer with the Prisoners Literature Project (PLP), wants to make sure that access to literature remains a right for everyone — especially prisoners without the means to obtain books themselves.

Arbatman saw the opportunity to help the Books Through Bars program — an organization dedicated to providing quality reading material to prisoners — in his own way. He has created a benefit compilation CD entitled “Walls Turned Sideways Are Bridges.” The album title acquired its name from within the 1974 autobiography of activist Angela Davis, a former history of consciousness professor at UCSC.

The CD is the accumulation of a year’s worth of work, during which time Arbatman tracked down artists, oversaw design and assembled the final product.

Arbatman chose a combination of bands with whom he shared personal connections, as well as some who inspired him from afar. The compilation includes tracks from artists such as Tulsa, Prohibition Heartthrob, Fischer and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Most of these tracks are previously unreleased, an incentive which Arbatman hopes will boost sales.

All proceeds of the benefit compilation, which is now available online at, will be donated to the Prisoners Literature Project. Only 200 copies have been produced. Arbatman strived to create a cost-efficient album with large-scale results, he said.

“I worked at a copy center for awhile, so I made [promotional] flyers there,” Arbatman said. “And I actually got all of the jewel cases for free off of Craigslist, so that really helped. It’s minimum cost for maximum proceeds. Keeping the cost down ensures that more money will get to PLP.”

The finished product reveals the fruits of Arbatman’s efforts, for which he had support from his friends Rosie Zuckerman and Eugene Goldin, who are both UCSC alumni. Zuckerman assisted with assembly and Goldin created the dark, yet vibrant artwork on the CD cover. The image depicts a morose prisoner standing solitary in his cell. The darkness of the bars gradually turns into a bridge above his head, indicating the opportunity that may await him.

The Prisoners Literature Project started in the early 1980s as a volunteer-driven and donor-funded organization, with the goal of securing and sending free books to prisoners across the nation. Beginning in the back room of Bound Together Books, a popular anarchist bookstore on Haight Street in San Francisco, Prisoners Literature Project (PLP) has brought together the efforts of these volunteers to emphasize.

“Everyone deserves access to literature and educational materials, including people trying to work toward social change, self-empowerment or rehabilitation within the incarceration system,” according to the PLP Web site.

While attending a concert in Oakland, Arbatman saw the flyers for PLP and stepped up.

“I got involved after the show by opening the letters from prisoners who requested books,” Arbatman said. “You try to match as much as possible what they’ve requested, but it’s only a few books at a time we can send because of the cost of postage. I thought it was a sweet thing to do, to make the penal institutions a more humane place. Everyone has the right to literature.”

The same sentiment is voiced by UCSC first-year literature student Lisa Martin.

“Reading and knowledge are the answer to the world,” Martin said. “The more you read really affects the more you know, and PLP recognized this. It’s the best way to make connections with the outside world.”

In the words of Angela Davis, “A bridge is just a wall turned sideways.” Arbatman’s work intends to create one such literary bridge for prisoners as he and PLP fell the wall keeping incarcerated citizens from access to literature.

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