How Can Books Empower Incarcerated Women? An interview with Chicago Books to Women in Prison

A volunteer browses the shelves for a book.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP) is committed to sending donated books to incarcerated women across the USA. The idea is that books can bring entertainment, education and self-empowerment to women whose only resources are poorly stocked prison libraries; last year, CBWP sent 3,300 packages of books to incarcerated women, which sounds incredible to me.

I was curious to learn more about how books can help incarcerated women and how the idea for the project came about, so I emailed the president of CBWP, Vicki White. Below is our exchange, and I hope it inspires some bookish resistance to a fascist government who is averse to facts in you!

How did the idea to distribute books to incarcerated women come to be and why? What was the inspiration?

Only about 7% of people in prison are women. And while of course women and men share many life experiences and reading interests, there are differences that matter. For example, about 80% of women in prison are mothers of minor children and many more were the primary caregiver before prison compared to men. The vast majority of women in prison have experienced interpersonal or sexual violence, with estimates as high as 90%—much higher than for men. And most incarcerated women have experienced trauma, which is linked to mental health, substance abuse, and relationship difficulties. It also contributes to becoming involved in crime. These and other issues mean women in prison have specific needs that we work hard to address through the books we stock. These include books on parenting, women’s mental and physical health, women’s self-help and more.

We’re still one of only two books-to-prisoners projects that focus on women. The people who founded our organization in 2002 were inspired by the other group, which is still going strong—the Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis.

Three month’s worth of requests for books.

On your website, there’s mention of self-empowerment through books. How can incarcerated women be self-empowered through books?

There may be as many ways as there are women who request books! But we often hear from women that the books we provide not only help them get through prison, they help them learn new things, have better relationships with their children, and build healthier lives.

Can you tell me about the process of collecting books and delivering them and what your favorite thing about it is? 

We regularly receive donations both in person and through the mail, ranging from one book to boxes of books. We invite people to refer to the kinds of books we always need, as well as our wish list of specific hard-to-find books and others in high demand.

We do everything through the mail, from receiving book requests to delivering the books, and we take care to find just the right books for each request from our thousands of donated books. We also enclose a personal note with each order and often hear that this small touch means a lot.

Why is this work important, especially in 2017 where parts of the elected government are actively anti-facts and anti-education?

Haven’t you answered the question already? 🙂 Getting books to people with little or no access to them is more important than ever.

What genres of books are the most requested and why?

Here are five of our top requests:

  • Urban fiction—Many women tell us these books tell the story of their lives.
  • Arts & crafts, such as drawing, card-making and crochet—Making something beautiful is especially vital in a harsh environment.
  • Puzzles—They’re fun ways to pass the time and stimulate the mind.
  • Parenting—It’s hard to be a mother from a distance.
  • Starting a business—Women want guidance in planning for a successful, independent life after prison

A letter to the organization explains how books helped an incarcerated woman.

Do you have anything to add?

This looks to be an exciting and productive year for us. We’ll be celebrating our 15th birthday, and while we’d love to be able to close the doors and give the books away, as long as there’s the need, we’re committed to providing the power and pleasure of books. Stay on top of what’s going on with us. Follow us @ChicagoBWP and find us on Facebook.

How can people help this cause?

Check out our website for a number of ways to help. We currently have a waiting list for new volunteers, but we’re looking at ways to increase our capacity. In the meantime there are many other ways to contribute, from helping us get the books we need to hosting a fundraiser.

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