Books carry hope, respect, knowledge through prison bars

Fundraiser supports literacy of incarcerated women

Photo by Hermann Traub via Pixabay
Photo by Hermann Traub via Pixabay

It isn’t news that women are still getting a raw deal from society, or that women of color still face further discrimination. None of which helps the situations of incarcerated females, particularly those of color.

The Center for American Progress in 2012 reported, “As the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades, women of color have been disproportionately represented. While the number of women incarcerated is relatively low, the racial and ethnic disparities are startling. African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.”

The Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP) doesn’t discriminate. There’s no avoiding the fact, though, that the organization, virtually by default, acts on behalf of Black women, because of how many of them are locked up.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in 2006 for the publication AlterNet, “Black women have almost single-handedly expanded the women’s prison-industrial complex.” He goes on to add a note on which WPBP works to make a simple but significant change. “More than one out of three black women jailed did not complete high school, were unemployed, or had incomes below the poverty level at the time of their arrest.”

Reading is, cliché or not, fundamental, after all, to life skills — like going back and getting a GED, then a college degree, like doing something about a decent job and like leaving poverty. Hutchinson continues, “The quantum leap in black women behind bars has had devastating impact on families and the quality of life in many poor black communities. Thousands of children of incarcerated women are raised by grandparents, or warehoused in foster homes and institutions.” Accordingly, this is fundamental to both the inmate’s hopes of returning to a legal life and to the future of her children.

“I don’t think most people should be incarcerated,” says Sakina. “I think they should be educated.”

For the past two decades this program has worked to be there as a resource, providing reading materials on subjects from law and education to fiction, politics, history and women’s health. If, like most people in prison, literacy was never a priority and you don’t read well, this is a chance to practice as well as find information to help when you get out. If you can’t read at all, this is an opportunity for you to learn.

There is a fundraising benefit coming up that invites the public to help WPBP help women behind bars with the Women’s Prison Book Project’s Pancake Breakfast and Book Sale. Heidi Heise of WPBP says of the event, by email, “The pancake breakfast is an annual gathering of community and friends of WPBP. Though it is of course a fundraiser, it is more so a place for people who have been longtime supporters of WPBP to gather in a wonderful South Minneapolis venue and talk and reconnect.

“WPBP strives to keep this community event going for the good of WPBP and South Minneapolitans,” Heise continues. “And to keep people aware of the injustice that is happening in our country to millions of underrepresented people.”

There is, along with the difference this project makes toward inmates getting together the nuts and bolts of life, the aspect that human beings respond to being treated with humanity. “WPBP has been sending books to folks in prison for over 20 years,” says Heise. “And the ways that people have been affected is definitely across the board. The most important message that I have taken away from the thousands of letters that we’ve read is that people who are incarcerated feel respected when we send them the books that they requested.

“People that are incarcerated are separated from the general public — from us — and feel that they haven’t been forgotten,” she continues “It is a connection across the bars that makes this project important. Hope and connection is the point, with a side of entertainment, education and distraction from the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system.”

Heise readily notes that there’s no lack of appreciation on the part of prisoners. “We have binders of letters from people over the years.”

Consider quotes from women who’ve benefitted: “Every one of those books has taught me there’s a story in each of us,” says Deven.

“I don’t think most people should be incarcerated,” says Sakina. “I think they should be educated.”

“The books you sent help me stay sane in this place. I’ve been here 20 years.” That’s from Linda.

You can’t overthrow ongoing discrimination by a stubbornly sexist system in one fell swoop. You can, however, help individuals straighten themselves out and stand a fighting chance, and it won’t cost much.

The Women’s Prison Book Project’s Pancake Breakfast and Book Sale is Saturday, Feb. 14 from 8 am until noon at Walker United Methodist Church, 3104 16th Ave. So. For adults: $6-10 (sliding scale), children $3. Books are $2 paperback, $3 hard cover.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls, 55403.