PRISON BEYOND BARS: Books as the Great Escape

Madison booksellers get handwritten letters from prisoners, and respond with special packages

[Image] PRISON BEYOND BARS: Books as the Great Escape


Complete coverage: JMC 604 multi-media project


By Caitlin PenzeyMoog

Waupun Correctional Institution inmate number 461598 has always wanted to go to France. So with three months left in his prison sentence he ordered a few books: a French/English dictionary, French Country Bed and Breakfasts, and Memories de la Rose. 

The titles didn’t come from the prison’s library. Instead, strangers in Madison, Wisconsin received his plea for reading material and responded by sending him the books free of charge.

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners is a non-profit, volunteer-run program that sends books to thousands of inmates in the Department of Corrections who do not have access to the books they’re looking for in prison libraries.

Inmate number 461598 may not seem like the type of person interested in French culture, but there is more to the man than a number. Michael Fuller, age 25, is at the end of his year-long jail term for violating probation. It’s his third term at Waupun Correctional Institution for revocation, which means he violated the terms of his parole.

Like many prisons in Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections system, the library at Waupun is understaffed and underfunded. Unable to access the books he wanted there, Fuller wrote a letter imploring Wisconsin Books to Prisoners for the dictionary and accompanying literature of French culture.

Fox Lake Correctional Institution, on the other hand, has a much better library than Waupun. Robert Buehler, an inmate there, writes via letter that, “we have a very adequate library especially in the area of fiction which is very current. I would say that non fiction selections are somewhat antiquated and new books are limited especially in the area of trades/vocations.”

Buehler sent in his letter requesting books about theatre, horticulture, nature and animals, and foreign language.

“I have a degree in theatre so am very interested in the subject and I also have certifications in turf/lawn management and greenhouse management,” Buehler writes.

A week later and fifty-five miles south in Madison, Wisconsin, Camy Matthay skimmed through these letters. After browsing through the shelves packed with books that surround her, she selected certain titles and placed them on the table to be wrapped and sent.

Surrounding Matthay were hundreds of books, all patiently standing on their shelves to be sent to the prisoners who requested them. The shelves stand in a small room in the basement of a home of Sarah Quinn, a volunteer at Wisconsin Books to Prisoners. While the main work of the program takes place in Rainbow Bookstore on Gilman Street in Madison, the space wasn’t big enough to hold all the books once the program got under way. So the volunteers meet here, in a cramped, dimly-lit space, to organize books for prisoners.

While there are thousands of books crammed onto every available space, often times the prisoner’s requests are too specific, or the program is simply out of books on a certain subject. But after reading Fuller’s request, Matthay quickly found the books she was looking for and set them proudly down on the table littered with letters and the dozens of other orders she was working on.    

“When we can fill somebody’s, nail three requests, it’s like yay!” she smiles.

Matthay is bookish-looking herself, with flyaway hair tied out of the way and large glasses that she pulls forward to the tip of her nose when reading prisoner’s letters.

Matthay started Wisconsin Books to Prisoners in 2006. It’s run by Rainbow Bookstore staff and local volunteers. The organization’s pamphlet is available in Wisconsin correctional institutions, complete with the order form that the prisoners send in. The books come to the prisoners free of charge. 

There are no other programs like this in Wisconsin, and in fact, Wisconsin Books to Prisoners sometimes helps out other states like California and Texas, whose sister programs cannot keep up with demand.

Matthay started volunteering in prisons several years ago and saw firsthand the lack of books available to prisoners.

“It bothered me a great deal that individuals with a great hunger to learn were being thwarted,” she said.

WBTP receives between 40 and 50 orders a week. The single most requested item? Dictionaries.

After dictionaries, the most requests are for thesauruses, almanacs, African-American history and literature, and languages, particularly Spanish. Vocational-training manuals are always in high demand, and Matthay says she has gotten requests across the board, for gay and lesbian literature, fiction, current affairs and politics, anthropology, hobbies, arts, drawing, crafts, psychology, and health and fitness.

Matthay opened another letter and read it quickly. Then she sighed and looked upwards as though asking the heavens for some help.

“This is the kind of letter that gives you and indication of how little the DOC [Department of Corrections] is doing to try to help people be functional when they get out,” she said. “We get so many requests for people who want books on how to start a business, employment, and books on given trades they’re clearly not getting.”

Looking at the stack of letters, carefully written out and sent by the prisoners, it is easy to see them as more than their inmate numbers. Fuller went from number 461598 to the man who dreams of going to France.

“This is what I think does the most to humanize prisoners,” said Matthay. “To people who have typical stereotypes about big bad criminals being not interested in education, not interested in self-improvement, not wanting to rehabilitate themselves.”

While Matthay was able to fill Fuller’s requests, she often cannot get to the forty or so orders the program gets each week.

“We used to be able to fill all the orders,” said Matthay. “But at this point we can’t because of the ban. The ban is holding us up.”

The Wisconsin ban on sending used books to prisoners is the only such statewide ban in America. In May 2008 the Wisconsin Department of Corrections banned any books being sent to prisoners. After months of negotiations, Matthay says, the DOC agreed to allow new books, but not used ones, to be sent. The department’s justification for the policy is that the likelihood of contraband being concealed in used books is greater than that in new books.

After the ban went into effect later that year, Wisconsin Books to Prisoners struggled with keeping up with demand. The books are always sent eventually, if not right away, and inmates Buehler and Fuller received them gratefully.

“I heard it was a wonderful program,” Buehler wrote, “and I hope to be able to help the program through either fundraising or book donations [in the future].

“What I’m hoping to gain,” explained Fuller via letter, “is educational as well as pleasure, because for me, I see no difference. I derive pleasure from learning and I learn from recreational books.”   

Education is the keystone to the recidivism rates of U.S. prisoners. According to a 2001 study for the Department of Education, inmates who receive schooling are far less likely to return to prison within three years of their release. By looking at more than 3,600 inmates in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio, the study concluded that simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29%.

Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections has the same budget problems facing any other government sector in this economically challenging time. One of the first things to be reduced or cut out altogether in the budget is libraries, followed by education.

“If there’s less cash to go around in prisons, of course the cutting isn’t going to come from something necessary like guards,” said Kenneth Streit, a law professor at UW-Madison who specializes in prison systems.

There’s also the fact that prisoners face a different set of educational circumstances than the general population.

“While basic education - GED plus pre-GED plus high school diploma - is one thing, vocational education is also important if the person otherwise would not have skills to obtain a job after release from prison,” said Streit. “Wisconsin has drastically reduced funding for its prisons.”

But some programs remain, including academic educational programs like Adult Basic Education. Some prisons, such as Fox Lake Correctional Institution, have a variety of vocational training, including auto body and paint technician, brick laying/masonry and refrigeration servicing among others.

Since 95% of Wisconsin inmates will be released, it makes sense to assume that the better prepared they are to re-enter society, the better. Several programs help prisoners with re-entry in Wisconsin, and a common theme that emerges from such groups is helping former inmates find and keep employment.

The three-state study shows the benefit of education in prisons regarding recidivism rates, but also highlights the other benefits of educational programs in prisons.

''The public safety question, the reduction in crime is very important,'' Stephen J. Steurer of the Correctional Education Association, the lead author on the study, told the New York Times. ''But there are also real financial savings. We found that for every dollar you spend on education, you save two dollars by avoiding the cost of re-incarceration.''   

The study also notes that the reduction in crime itself cannot be so easily translated into dollars but surly has an important beneficial effect on the population as a whole.

“Some people spend their time playing cards,” writes Buehler. “Some play dominoes, some with television, and others read. I was amazed how well read some prisoners are.

“To make a long story short...I picked the books for education and pleasure.”

And as anyone who enjoys reading knows, the benefits of a good book extend far beyond purely educational gain. Inmate Fuller explained that reading provides an escape.

“Not unlike The Never Ending Story, where a boy hides from circumstances and finds his escape into a fantasy world of flying dogs, monsters and heroes, I find I can escape from my prison for as long as I am involved in a book, because I can focus on fiction, rather than reality.”

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