The United States prison system stands out as a frightful leader on the list of unjust and destructive institutions that ought to be reformed, if only because it impacts so many lives. Prisons do not seem to be making our country’s inhabitants safer, but we continue to fill these institutions past capacity without questioning the consequences.
Angela Davis exhorts us to "explore new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor." She is right—and something like the community based model of transformative justice promoted by Generation 5 is a plausible alternative. But transformation is slow and institutions are built to endure. Until we have carved out other paths to justice and corrections, it is imperative that we intervene against some of the cruelty of our prison system as it is now.
Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP) is a small volunteer collective supporting incarcerated people by creatively using existing infrastructures. In our efforts to send books to readers behind bars, we are encouraging people to see some institutions differently: prison cells can be opened, libraries can be everywhere, and the US Postal Service is a civic wonder. CBWP is a straightforward operation. People who are incarcerated in women’s prisons send us requests for books. They want every type of book: biographies, addiction recovery guides, plays, GED workbooks, Bibles, romance novels, poetry, dictionaries. People who aren’t incarcerated bring us the books they don’t need any longer. They bring us every type of book, too. CBWP volunteers do their best to match requests with the donated inventory; we respond to each letter with a package of three books, a note, and a new order form.
Simply put, CBWP moves books between readers. In that way, CBWP is a tweaked version of a public library. We try to help people find the information and ideas that they are searching for. Of course, our inventory is limited so we can’t always fill requests with much precision and our patrons don’t get to choose exactly what they want. Even so, we work to keep the books in the hands of readers. Books are infinite sources of pleasure, escape, knowledge, comfort, and insight. Their powers are enriched when they are shared to be read again and again. Given this, we suggest that you make efforts to move books, too.
Make use of the institutions that circulate books. Visit your branch of the public library. Revel in your unlimited opportunities to freely choose anything you want from the wealth on the shelves. Appreciate the people whose efforts sustain these miraculous systems: authors, publishers, city budget allocators, librarians, readers. You can also become an institution that circulates books in your own right. Treat the piles and boxes of books that you own as a version of a library, too: recommend them, share them with others, and distribute them generously. Books are kept alive by libraries, and libraries can take many forms.
The circulation that we manage at CBWP would be impossible if we could not physically transfer the books into prisons. We answer letters that come from minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security facilities in nine states, including California and Florida. We spend roughly eighty percent of our yearly operating budget on postage. Without a reliable, cheap infrastructure for shipping packages of books, we could not function. The United States Postal Service delivers to every correctional facility in the country.
Most institutions place restrictions on what can be sent to an incarcerated person, but the USPS will deliver their mail in good faith. The USPS charges around $3 to ship a package of three books at the "media mail" rate to a prison in the United States. That pittance sets in motion a vast network of clerks, carriers, trucks, planes, computers and stamps so that books may keep moving. Each delivered package represents one person’s access to the knowledge, solace and strength that come from reading. We cannot travel to Lowell Correctional Facility in Ocala, Florida to hand out a library’s worth of paperbacks but the USPS does exactly that, over and over again. Consider the marvel of this affordable public resource. Every week, CBWP uses this government-sponsored infrastructure to fight against brutality perpetrated by another government-sponsored infrastructure. The mail matters.
Prison book projects do not obliterate the racism, violence, and suffering that characterize our carceral system. But in almost every letter we receive, women tell us that books help them fight the isolation and loneliness they endure behind bars. Many write to tell us how books give them hope and links to the world beyond prison. They thank us for proving that there are people who think about them, care about them, and believe that their requests are worth answering. Their messages prove that book projects can provide connections to help to make life in prison less invisible, more tolerable.
Libraries and post offices distribute diverse voices and amplify ideas. We don’t always see them because they are ubiquitous, cheap and reliable enough to be ignored until we’re somehow frustrated by them. Prisons are isolating sites of state retribution and profit making. We don’t always see them because they are daunting evidence that the carceral system cannot be fought. Both sorts of institutional blindness should come to an end. CBWP hopes that we can begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of these institutions. We can engage them, respect the people who are part of them, and turn their functions toward projects of justice, mercy, and stronger human bonds. ◊