Women prisoner project gives new meaning to ‘book ’em’

Book Project feeds inmates’ minds, will broaden its mission

The Whittier-based Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP) is celebrating its 10th year in existence and that its role in helping female prisoners is becoming larger and more important.

In the past decade, prisoners’ book requests have surged, said co-founder Susan Svatek. "We started with 10 orders a month and moved to 600 to 700 orders a month," she said — about 7,000 books a year.

Organizers hope that by providing prisoners with books it will boost their self-esteem, improve their mood and spark interest in education and, once they’re released, bettering themselves to keep from reoffending.

And there are a lot more prisoners who will someday be released: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2002, 97,481 female inmates were in state and federal prisons — 42 percent more than in 1995, and 6.8 percent of all prison inmates.

Volunteer Sarah Gioia said WPBP’s commitment has moved beyond that of the printed page. The organization, housed at Arise! Resource Center and Bookstore, 2441 Lyndale Ave. S., has become a type of advocacy group, a general resource for female prisoners.

History

WPBP began as a group of friends with a progressive agenda and a desire to serve women serving time — who are often victims of society themselves, organizers say.

Co-founder Nicola Pine said, in 1994, she and her friends felt defeated after organizing resistance to the first Gulf War. They were looking to focus their volunteer efforts on something more tangible.

Svatek said a friend had turned them onto the idea of a book project for prisoners after participating in one in Boston. She said women in prison desperately need support, and WPBP is making a difference.

"Prison is probably the least empowering place in the world. (We’re) here to support, so they don’t go back," she said, while flipping pancakes at the group’s annual pancake breakfast fund-raiser Feb. 7.

The group moved into Arise! six years ago, now their home base for collecting and sorting books to fill prisoner requests by mail. In a weird twist of fate for the diligent Minnesotans, Gioia said no Minnesota prisons accept their donations. That’s because state prisons have a rule that if something is donated to prisoners, every inmate must get exactly the same thing — for example, the same book — an impossible task for WPBP’s volunteers.

Therefore, WPBP-donated books go everywhere in the U.S. but here.

Why help prisoners, not victims?

Most people’s sympathies lie with crime victims, not the perpetrators. So why does WPBP focus its volunteer efforts on the perpetrators?

"Because they need the help," Svatek said "desperately."

In its literature, WPBP states that more than half of all women prisoners have experienced physical, domestic or sexual abuse.

Svatek said many women in prison are there due to non-violent, poverty-related crimes, such as drugs and prostitution. "Most people in prison are poor," she said, explaining they’re there because "they don’t have many choices in society."

As a practical matter, WPBP focuses not on why women are in prison but how they can make the most of their time there — and come out for the better. "Everyone is eventually going to get out of prison — it’s up to us to help," said Sharon Pine, Nicola Pine’s mother and a Linden Hills resident.

After reading though Nicola Pine’s scrapbook of the hundreds of prisoners’ letters, it’s clear the need is there and they’re grateful for help. Prisoners not only express their thanks for the books, but for an organization that cares about them, letting them know they’ve not been forsaken.

"Your kindness really made me happy. Obviously, I’m quite excited to have new reading material, but I’m inspired by your work. Many of the women in prison have been ‘forgotten,’ and it’s so nice to have someone who cares," wrote Erin K. Berg, an Arizona state prison inmate.

Pamela Carson, incarcerated in Nevada, wrote about the program and her hope for a future career: "I walked into the library today and found your form. Wow! Finally someone who cares about us women in prison AND who wants to help… I teach sign language here when my schedule permits. When I get out I’d love to go to college, graduate and become a teacher to the hearing impaired/deaf."

More than books

Organizers say their work has raised their awareness of the serious lack of reformation efforts in the correctional system and greater needs of women in prison.

WPBP staffers say they’ve never been imprisoned, although volunteer Quiana Perkins said her commitment took on a more personal meaning when her sister was jailed. "Women in prison need to be educated," she said, describing their need for help and improved rehabilitation.

Svatek said the group tries to help. They will send books of all kinds, but prisoners often request books about parenting and dealing with sexual abuse — a powerful indication about their road to prison and what they’ve left behind.

To help make the family connection, Svatek said WPBP occasionally fills prisoners’ requests on behalf of their children, as birthday presents or visiting-time activities.

WPBP is developing an educational program to help prisoners and, going one step further into advocacy, filling prisoners’ requests for legal help, religious needs and even pen pals.

But WPBP’s expanding vision can clash with its limited volunteer time. Staffers say the group is behind on sending out book orders and needs more money and volunteers.

In addition to a February pancake breakfast, the group raises funds by staffing a concession stand at a monthly cabaret at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S.

Volunteers regularly package book mailings every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. at Arise! Donors can mail books to Arise, or drop them off there.

For more ways to get involved with the book project, visit www.prisonactivist.org/wpbp. For more information about prisoner-related stats, visit www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs.