Kate Kane: helping prisoners keep their minds active at the Women’s Prison Book Project

Kate Kane of Uptown had done the Minneapolis-to-Chicago AIDS ride twice and said she got frustrated with it's overhead. She decided she wanted to do volunteer work with more immediate and tangible results.

For the past three years, Kane has given her time to the Women's Prison Book Project. For three hours on Sundays, she and other volunteers go to the ARISE Bookstore and Resource Center, 2441 Lyndale Ave. S., and fill the reading requests from imprisoned women from across the country.

"You either pick the books, or you wrap," she said of the volunteer tasks. "We usually send out 100 packages a week, usually three books to a package."

Kane learned about the group from friends, and said the low-budget, low overhead approach attracted her.

"No one is on salary here. It is all run on volunteer work. The money goes predominantly to postage and books," said Kane, an American Studies doctoral student at the University of Minnesota in the final throes of her dissertation.

Postage for a week's worth of book mailing costs roughly $200, Kane said. The Book Project depends heavily on book donations, but it will buy some high-demand items in short supply -- like dictionaries or blank journals.

Volunteers raise about $120 a month by running the concession stand for Hot Bed, a women's cabaret held at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., Kane said. She bakes the brownies.

The Book Project operates out of a small room in ARISE, which describes itself as the "activist hub for the Twin Cities." Volunteers have organized the tightly packed shelves by high-demand subject areas: parenting, health, self- esteem, self-help, feminism, lesbian issues and books by or about women of color.

Each week, volunteers open letters and fill the request as best they can. Sometimes, women will ask for specific titles or authors; Iyanla Vanzant is a popular request, Kane said. More often, the women request themes, like romance, mystery books or Native American history.

She read a request waiting to be filled. It came from a woman in prison in Maysville, Ohio. A card on file with the Book Project showed it was her second order. She had previously received a journal, the book "Silence, Simplicity and Solitude" and a dictionary.

"I would like books on African American history," the woman wrote. "I would love to read James Baldwin's 'Another City.' I heard it was a good book. I also like Mark Twain."

Kane said the best part of the job came when she could fill "the perfect order."

"Next Tuesday, that woman will get

to open that package," she said. "There is a satisfaction to performing a concrete service."

The Women's Prison Book Project has a drop box at ARISE. It needs books in good condition. Needed areas include: dictionaries and books on women in recovery, self-esteem, GED materials, books by or about women of color, and lesbian fiction and non-fiction. Cash donations can be sent to Women's Prison Book Project, c/o ARISE Bookstore, 2441 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55405.

For more information, see www.prisonactivist.org/wpbp/.