As the Ravenswood corridor continues to garner attention for its industrial warehouses converted into lofts for booming technology start-ups, one office in a renovated building is home to a collective dedicated to helping people whose futures are bleak, regardless of any potential upturn in the economy.
Every Sunday afternoon, the volunteers of Chicago Books to Women in Prison meet at 4001 North Ravenswood, just north of Irving Park Road. They open letters from female prisoners across the country, look for three used paperback books that match each request, and package them for shipping to women in desperate need of something with which to bide their time.
One woman’s request reads:
“I have never been to prison before, never been in trouble, and am devastated. I was told I may write you to request three books. Hopefully you can help me as it is difficult to get books here or even get to the library.”
“Most people have the misconception that there’s a fully-stocked prison library the inmates can visit all the time,” says Arline Welty, a co-founder of Chicago Books to Women in Prison. “But it’s not like The Shawshank Redemption. The only books the prisons are required to provide are law books. And many inmates are only allowed one free hour per day, so they might not have time to go to the library.”
Women sometimes request a particular title, while others simply specify a genre: Romance, True Crime, Mystery, GLBT. When the library of donated books doesn’t contain a specific book requested, a suitable substitute is sent, along with a note that the recipient should try again, because the book might become available later. One recent letter included a request for a “Christian Romance set during the Civil War.” A Western Christian Romance was sent, instead.
Some requests can be puzzling. “When we first started,” recalls Welty, “someone asked for a book on dolphin training. I guess people can always follow their dreams.”
Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP) receives many requests for the latest bestsellers, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire-fantasy-romance series, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love, and for all-time favorites such as Stephen King, James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark. But Welty says the most-requested book is a dictionary. “They’re trying to educate themselves.”
Not that education is the main goal. Welty explains, “Some prison book programs only send educational books. But we believe that women know what’s best for them. If you want to read a romance novel, then we want you to read a romance novel.” Every package of books includes a blank order form. Recipients are encouraged to place unlimited orders.
Some requests come from someone else on behalf of the prisoner. One letter came from a men’s prison:
I am writing on behalf of my wife. She is incarcerated in a California prison and in dire need of any books you might be able to forward to her. As you can see, I’m also locked up so our means to care for each other are very seriously depleted, hence my letter today.
Megan Bernard, a regular volunteer, explains the motivation of most of the people who spend their Sundays filling orders. “It’s a very welcoming environment. And you know you’re doing something that is meaningful to one person. There’s something really connective about that. You get the feeling you’re making an impact, even though it’s a small one. That’s a rare experience.”
Welty and a group of archivists, librarians and feminists started Chicago Books to Women in Prison in 2002. While studying at the University of Chicago, Welty had volunteered for an adult literacy program and became aware of the many ways race, class and culture can determine a person’s path in life. “Prison is not the way to solve all of our problems. It’s an example of ways our society punishes people for being poor and of color.”
There are several groups in the United States that send books to prisons, but in 2002, there was only one that sent books exclusively to women’s prisons. Welty and her colleagues went to Minneapolis to visit the Women’s Prison Book Project, which was founded in 1994, to learn their system and propose a partnership.
The Women’s Prison Book Project initially delegated only requests from Illinois prisons to Chicago Books to Women in Prison. Now, nine years later, Chicago Books to Women in Prison is responsible for eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Additionally, CBWP handles all requests from the largest women’s prison in the United States, which is located in California.
Long-time volunteer Bill Goosby started donating books by mailing them to Books to Prisoners in Seattle and the Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis. Then someone told him about the newly-formed group in Chicago. Now he could save on postage by donating his used books in person. “That was almost ten years ago. I’m here just about every Sunday unless something keeps me from coming. There’s not much you can do but send books and a kind note.”
This letter was written on note paper adorned with cartoon lion cubs:
Thank you so much for all you do. Prison can be such a dark place. But my soul finds light when I am able to go to different places through the words I read. I have always enjoyed reading but sometimes now it can be something that can change my whole day. Thank you again. I keep y’all in my prayers.
CWBP volunteers meet every Sunday afternoon from 2:00 to 5:00 in the offices of Beyondmedia Education, an organization that uses media and workshops to promote understanding of women’s issues. “We are very fortunate to have Beyondmedia as our fiscal sponsor,” says Welty. “They collect our mail, house our library, and provide the space for our volunteers to work.”
Chicago Books to Women in Prison is always in need of paperback dictionaries, brown paper grocery bags (used to wrap up the books for shipping), clear packing tape, and financial donations to cover the cost of postage.