Among the hardships of prison — bars, noise, other prisoners — there is the trouble with books.
Prison libraries tend to be small, their books old, dated and falling apart from use. And in a penal version of the old joke about the food at a Catskills resort being lousy and in such small portions, use of these small, out-of-date, battered prison libraries tends to be heavily restricted.
“Sometimes a woman or man might have access for half an hour every two months,” said Vicki White, a volunteer at Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a group that does just what its name implies.
White contacted me because she saw that “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” the literary recovery book I wrote with Sara Bader, had come out in paperback — the only person in the wide world who noticed, as far as I can tell. Would I consider, she wondered, donating 20 copies for female inmates, who often struggle with addiction.
“Right,” I thought. “Like that’s going to happen.”
Still, I was curious about the group. The paperback publication is significant to them because they can’t send hardback books.
“Many prisons require paperback only — security issues,” White said.
When CBWP was founded in 2002 it originally shipped books to prisons in bulk, where the boxes would sit in mailrooms, unopened. So the founders assembled a library — about 8,000 volumes now — and began filling specific requests from prisoners.
“We get several thousand request a year,” said White. “We match their requests as well as we can. We have a pretty good inventory. So far this year, we’ve mailed 2,484 packages of books. We depend on donations.”
The books mostly go to prisons, but also to Cook County Jail, where prisoners are eager for books.
“They ask for them all the time,” said Sheriff Tom Dart. “Think about it. You’re locked in a place. You have limited interactions. You have a lot of time when you’re in your cell. It’s night. You’re getting ready to sleep. Books are huge; always a demand. We can always use more books here.”
Why books for women? Men make up 92 percent of the prison population.
“Many interests are the same, men or women, but some needs of women in prison are different,” White said. “One big difference is 75 to 80 percent of women in prison are mothers of minor children. That’s their biggest worry; they want to be better at it when they leave prison.”
When a man goes to prison, White said, 83 percent of the time his children will be cared for by their mother. When a woman goes to prison, the father provides care only 37 percent of the time.
“The children might be in foster care or might be living with relatives. It is not necessarily a good or ideal situation,” she said. “We get a lot of requests for books on parenting; specifically for parents who are in prison, books for children with a parent in prison.”
Are there a lot of those?
“It’s sad, but there is a market for that.”
The group does get some surprising requests.
“There is such a wide range of interests,” White said. “Every once in a while we’ll get a request for a book on learning Latin, or classical Greek. I’m always really happy to see that.
Is there an average female prisoner?
“A lot of them are drug crimes, the great, great majority non-violent offenses,” said White. “A lot of addiction-related, activities. We get many, many requests for books on recovery and to overcome addiction … we also get a lot of requests, for books of quotations and affirmations. They bring a lot of comfort and help to the women who get them.”
Kinda hard to say no to that …. I contacted my publisher, the University of Chicago Press. Would they donate 20 copies of the paperback to this group? Because otherwise, I might have to do it, and I’d hate that…
“There is such a need,” White said. “We have a core group of 30, people who come every week, sorting donations. People I know who do it say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done in their lives.”