Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP), a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a volunteer-led collective that provides paperback books to women incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. And they do it all for free. Below is our interview with CBWP’s Linnea Kennedy and other volunteers.
National Book Foundation: Chicago Books to Women in Prison is staffed by a “small but mighty team” of volunteers like yourself. What inspired you to get involved?
Chicago Books to Women in Prison: I first heard about CBWP when Megan Bernard, one of the group’s founding members, came to speak at one of my women’s and gender studies classes in grad school. I was inspired by how immediate and tangible CBWP’s work is—you open a letter, you find the books (or a near match), fill out the mailing label, write a note, package the books for mailing, and done. After my first Sunday at CBWP, I wanted to come back again and again. For me, there is also an element of resistance to the act of answering these book requests—resisting societal forces that largely ignore incarcerated populations (in particular, women), and resisting the larger oppressive structure of the prison industrial complex. A fellow volunteer, Katie Wadell, describes her commitment to CBWP’s mission: “I read all the time, and I would be bereft if I was without books. I volunteer because I don’t want anyone else to be without them.”
NBF: In addition to 3 paperbacks and an order-form to get more books, you send your constituents handwritten notes. What messages do you send out?
CBWP: Usually it’s something simple like, “Hope you enjoy the books!” or “Happy reading!”, or sometimes a “Sorry we don’t have the exact book that you asked for, but here are some others by the same author/in the same genre/ on the same topic, etc.” If I’ve read the book myself, I’ll write something like, “I really enjoyed this book/author, I hope you like it too!” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby says, “My handwritten notes usually say something to the point, relating to the order, and something positive, because I regard the inmates as ‘clients,’ not ‘criminals.’…I have noticed that when you sign your name, you may get a ‘thank you’ letter in their next order. Sometimes amounting to several pages of their life story. They seem to be very moved that there is a person ‘out there’ who cares enough to pick books out ‘just for them.’ Sometimes we read the thank you letters to the rest of the volunteers: it seems to inspire them to be more conscientious in their tasks.”
NBF:You aim to offer women “access to a range of literature, free of judgment and with no strings attached.” What are some of the books prison libraries readily carry, and what are the types of books your women are looking for?
CBWP: We get a lot of requests for blank journals/composition notebooks, dictionaries, dream journals, dream interpretation books, meditation, daily affirmation, books on yoga and health. Urban fiction is also a popular request and, unfortunately, not a genre that is donated to us very often. Romance and thriller are also frequently requested genres. GED prep books are also very popular, as are high school- and college-level text books. CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “The [availability of books] can vary greatly from prison to prison. We understand that prison libraries are required to make law books available, but, beyond that, budgets, librarian preference and state policy can play a large part. Our limited information suggests that prison libraries carry a variety of fiction and non-fiction. But there may be few copies of particular books that are in high demand. Brief loan periods can mean women cannot hold onto a book for as long as they’d like. And access to the library is often limited. All these factors help create demand for programs like ours… It’s important to add that we get many, many requests for journals and composition books, and we’ve come to see this as an important part of our mission. Women who ask for journals often mention the reasons, which include education (whether as part of a program or self-directed), self-expression and self-reflection. But it has been challenging to meet this need. Some prisons have prohibited journals; we’re not sure, but it could be because they sell them in their own prison stores. Or they may simply want to discourage women’s documentation of their lives in prison. The main issue, however, is that we must send journals by First Class Mail instead of the less expensive Media Mail, and this has meant limiting the sending of journals. We are taking steps to be able to send journals more frequently and to as many women as possible.”
NBF:Can you talk more about opportunities for “self-empowerment, education, and entertainment that reading provides”?
CBWP: In thinking about these important benefits of reading—key to the mission of Chicago Books to Women in Prison—there is one obvious conclusion: these are the same reasons anyone reads. In providing books to women prisoners, it becomes impossible to see them as the “other” because they are (of course!) like us in vital ways. We believe that connection is conveyed to the women we serve, which makes a difference beyond the physical books.
In her book Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, Megan Sweeney documents extensively the reading practices of incarcerated women. According to Sweeney’s research, drawn from hundreds of interviews conducted with women in three different U.S. prison facilities, reading serves multiple functions for incarcerated women. Reading in prison allows for escapism and entertainment, is a crucial part of self-making and identity creation, and provides a foundation and context for prisoners to understand their past actions and former selves, especially in relation to larger socioeconomic forces and systems. We frequently receive thank you notes from the women who order books from us; they often detail the relief that reading provides—the solitude and moments for reflection that can come from a good book. Sometimes women request books on specific topics related to jobs they are interested in procuring once they are released. I recently answered a letter from a woman who was enrolled in a pre-release job training program in environmentally friendly landscaping. (She was asking for gardening books, an illustrated plant encyclopedia, etc.) Books can be a part of a larger process of planning for life post-incarceration.
NBF: One of your application sponsors described how library access is limited because prisons may view a library as a security risk. She also explains that many books are banned. What do you think is the perceived danger, and what can be done to help prisons see books as a resource rather than contraband?
CBWP: Personally, I wish I knew. I feel like the answer lies somewhere in an ideology shift—less focus on punitive measures and potential sources of profit for the prison system, and more focus on the restoration of prisoners’ humanity and agency. CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “In general, prisons today are more interested in control and pacification than in rehabilitation. For example, we have read that in recent decades television has been made more available to prisoners, while reading has received less support. Prison authorities seem to view thinking prisoners as potentially disruptive. (Perhaps they’re right, in that a prisoner who reads may be more likely to know her rights and pursue them.) There are exceptions, and we’ve read about individual officials who see the benefits of reading in the prison system and have introduced such programs. It does appear that much of the initiative for reading and other enrichment programs comes from the outside, and this is likely to continue until the overall philosophy of the prison system changes. At the same time, there is evidence that reading, along with educational programs in general, tends to reduce recidivism. This should help in gaining the support of prison authorities. But perhaps there are fewer incentives for reducing recidivism than for keeping prisons full? If so, that again suggests that the general situation will change only with changes in the system as a whole.” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby adds, “A male prisoner who I correspond with, is a gang member from the Crips-Bloods franchise in Los Angeles. After a recent prison riot, sparked off by some accidental foul during a basketball game, he was put in solitary confinement for two weeks. He was not allowed any personal mail, soap or deodorant, nor any of his books (he is quite literate and articulate), but they allowed him a color TV in his cell! Even he pointed out to me that this is one way they keep inmates from thinking!”
NBF: How can books and the act of reading help prisoners “reclaim their humanity”?
CBWP: To quote one of our dedicated volunteers, Katie Wadell: “Imagination, empathy, curiosity, and the ability to think for ourselves are all part of being human, and are all things that can be repressed in an institutional environment. Reading is a quiet way to get all of that back. I find that reading (especially fiction) stimulates my imagination in ways that can help me find solutions to my problems. I can’t be the only person who feels that way.”
Pam Harcourt, a longtime CBWP volunteer adds, “It’s important to note that we don’t serve just clients in women’s prisons, but also trans women who write us from inside men’s prisons. We had a lengthy letter from a woman in her early thirties who’d been inside a men’s prison for 10 years. She described being assaulted many times and said that reading helped her pass some suicidal early years inside, and that she’d since built community with many of the younger women who came to the prison, taking on a mentoring role with them. This mentorship included general care and safety as well as seeing them through GED and other studies. The girls were thrilled (as were we) that they had recently won a victory, getting their own pod (group of cells). But when the prisoners who had previously been in those cells moved, they ransacked that pod’s library, leaving very little left. We had a list of requests from each trans prisoner, but we voted to break our three-books rule and send them a large box with their requests and more. There were some requests for trans-related books (one of the few categories which we purchase, as we get few donations), but many for spirituality, romance, horror— the usual requests. In some cases the small service we provide is one of the few instances of a woman being recognized, in any official way, as a woman. We think being able to determine one’s gender, rather than it being determined by the state, is important to one’s humanity.”