Vicki White remembers a letter she once received from an incarcerated woman asking for help.
“She needed glasses, but she had to pay for them herself and couldn’t afford them,” White said.
The woman was asking for large-print books so she could still continue to read, even though the prison she was at wouldn’t provide her with the seeing aids she needed.
These are the types of stories that drive the mission of White and her organization, Chicago Books to Women in Prison.
As the name indicates, the nonprofit focuses on providing books to incarcerated women, transgender people, and nonbinary people across the country.
What began in 2002 as a local effort to bring literature behind bars in Illinois has since expanded to send books to women and transgender and nonbinary people in prison in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio, as well as all federal prisons. The organization also hand-delivers books to Cook County Jail.
“We all, I think, would prefer not to have this mission,” White said.
White feels strongly that books and literature should be readily available to all people in prison. But that’s not always the case.
Some prisons have libraries but many don’t. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many prisons closed their libraries to decrease high-touch spaces.
A woman held at Folsom Women’s Facility, a prison in California, wrote to Chicago Books to Women in Prison that the library in her prison had closed during the pandemic and access to books was impossible. Another woman held at a federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, said she and other prisoners were only allowed out of their cells for one hour a day to shower and use phones during the pandemic, and she needed books to read.
In February 2022, the Illinois Department of Corrections relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions and began allowing those incarcerated to access prison libraries again, according to the department. Even still, with the initial wave of the pandemic shifting to the back of many people’s minds, access to books behind bars remains a challenge for many. Most prisons require books to be new. No hardcover books are allowed. Many individual titles and genres remain banned.
White and her organization are working to fill that gap.
When someone in prison sends a letter to the organization requesting a certain type of book, a volunteer workforce of about 30 will then gather a selection of three books related to the prisoner’s interests, package them, and ship the books to the prison.
“A few months ago a woman in a California prison asked for books in Vietnamese and we put out a call on social media and found some we were able to send to her,” White said. “And we got a nice thank-you note from her last week.”
Some genres or types of books are more popular than others.
“Education books are big,” White said. “We send a lot of GED books and language learning books.”
The books people ask for often hold a mirror to the prison industrial complex.
Between 1993 and 2013, the number of people in state prisons over the age of 55 increased by 400 percent, according to data from the National Institute of Corrections.
“The prison population is aging and we get orders from people well advanced in age,” White said, noting the growing number of requests for large-print books. “It reflects the typical poor state of health in prisons.”
Another important need to many in prison is queer literature. The partnership between Chicago Books to Women in Prison and Women & Children First helps fill that niche.
LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in all stages of the legal and criminal system, and prisons are no exception. According to data from Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit criminal justice think tank based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, a third of all women in prison identify as lesbian or bisexual. This statistic doesn’t accommodate for transgender and nonbinary people in prison.
It’s important to White to make sure incarcerated women, trans people, and nonbinary people know there are queer books available to them.
Lynn Mooney has been a co-owner of Women & Children First, with business partner Sarah Hollenbeck, since 2014, but the partnership between the bookstore and White’s organization dates back “years and years,” Mooney said with pride.
“They decided to center incarcerated people and what they wanted and needed and were asking for, and then put the work on all of us to come up with those books,” she said. “And I just think that is so smart, and so right.”
It’s not only the bookstore itself that is helping out. Customers can purchase gift cards to donate to the organization or buy new books off of the organization’s running wishlist. The list varies in nature, and includes popular titles like The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, as well as crochet and calligraphy books, Mooney said.
The numbers show the level of community support.
In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit mailed 1,964 orders of books and notebooks to women and trans people in prisons across the country. Another 1,600 sets of composition books, crayon packs, and folders went to the women and trans prisoners at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois. The organization also delivered three individual orders of 600 books and 700 composition books to the women’s division of Cook County Jail.
These days, White estimates that the organization fills about 80 orders every weekend.
Sending and receiving mail in the corrections system in any state is a slow and convoluted process. Sending books to prisons often adds extra complications. On average, an order is received, filled, and returned in about a three-month time period, White said.
But having books and shipments rejected by prisons is a common issue.
“Some states are harder to deal with than others, some prisons are harder to deal with than others,” White adds. “There’s one federal prison that does not allow any organization to get books inside. There is a state prison we have to deal with that continually rejects books that every other prison accepts. It’s a constant challenge.”
It’s easy to feel powerless when so much of the system works to keep people out, Mooney notes. Doing this work helps her and her customers feel like they are achieving meaningful change.
“It’s not my destiny to, you know, solve the problem of the prison industrial complex,” Mooney said. “But a lot of us working around the edges can make real differences.”
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