This summer, at my daughter’s suggestion, I started watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Pretty soon, I was hooked and binge-watched the entire season over the course of a few days. I was intrigued even further when I found out that this show about life in a woman’s prison is based on the true account of Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman, in the show), a Waspy Smith graduate. In fact, I’ve persuaded my book club to read Kerman’s book of the same name.
Just by chance, a literacy organization that serves this population— Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP)—was recently brought to my attention through my affiliation with Chicago Women in Publishing (CWP).
Readers of this blog (grandbookers?) are aware that I like to support worthwhile organizations that promote literacy and strive to put books in the hands of those who need and want them. Often, these organizations revolve directly around children—this one does not, although it is beneficial to children in the sense that approximately two-thirds of women incarcerated in state prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18.
CBWP fulfills female prisoners’ requests for books, mailing three paperbacks to a package, as well as furnishing books directly to prison libraries. Unfortunately, these prison libraries, if they exist at all, are severely underfunded and contain little of interest.
What touched me was what was most requested…what do you think that might be? I assumed that escapist literature (pun intended) would be on the top of everyone’s list. Actually, dictionaries and blank journals are the most popular books or rather, reading/writing tools. Both these items facilitate self-development: the dictionary, for obvious reasons, and the journal as a place to express themselves, process what’s transpiring in their lives and try to make meaning of their experiences. Maybe, one of the prisoners is working on her memoir— the next Orange is the New Black.
CBWP operates out of a storefront at 950 W. Newport Avenue in Chicago. You can drop off books (paperback only) on Sundays between 2–5 p.m. You can also help by contributing time or making monetary donations (mainly for postage). Despite its name, CBWP now distributes materials nationwide.
If you’d like to learn more about the role that reading plays in women’s prisons, check out the award-winning book Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons by Megan Sweeney. Professor Sweeney includes interviews and discussions with incarcerated women and offers fascinating insights into how they come to terms with their pasts, negotiate their present experiences, and reach toward different futures.