Redefining America’s Prison

Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project Provides Books to Prisoners

The United States prisons currently are considered a booming business and imprison more people than any other country in the world. Corporations like Honeywell, Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, and Boeing use prison labor.1More money is put into the prison system than education. The profits derived from prison labor makes the prospect of proper education and rehabilitation within prisons look bleak.

However, nonprofit groups are picking up the roll of empowering people in prisons while the government falls short. The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project based in Bloomington, Indiana seeks to encourage self-education among prisoners through providing free books. The project aims to aid in the rehabilitation process, stimulate critical thinking, and offer entertainment.

"As a narrative; it's kind of lock 'em up and throw away the keys," Paul, a volunteer at Pages, said. "If we treat everyone like that then their just gonna come out and be as mad as they were before and just do what they were doing before because that's all they knew."

Many prisons require that books come directly from bookstores or publishers to prisoners. They often cannot get books from their family or friends. The libraries have outdated resources, and usually prisoners cannot take books back to their cells. These barriers coupled with restrictions imposed by the prisons concerning content, and the packaging of books inhibit the availability of educational resources to people in prison.

"As a rule that the prisons have we're not allowed to send pornography or true crime; like stories about real serial killers and stuff," Paul said.

According to Paul, one prison rejected a book similar to “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” because it had sexual references. However, the book wasn't graphic.

Midwest Pages to Prisoners had to stop sending books to prisoners in Michigan when books that were brand new were sent back to the group for unknown reasons.

"Even books that were completely new would get sent back. So, we stopped doing it. So, when we get request letters from prisoners we just send them a postcard that says why we discontinued sending to Michigan."

The group has had to rip the hardcover off books in order to send them to some prisons where only soft-cover books were allowed.

"One time we did that to a place that could get hardback and they sent it back," Paul said. "The person that picked that book out didn't know that. They just assumed that they couldn't get hard-backs. So, we ripped it off, and [the prison] sent it back because there was no cover."

"They say that the hardback books can be used as a weapon," he said.

The delays are inconvenient for the group which operates on donations and is run by an all volunteer nonprofit bookstore, Boxcar Books, in Indiana.

"Most of the moneygoes to sending the books off, but we do go to book sales and stuff and look for highly requested books, like African American studies, and dictionaries and stuff. Also, some people from IU (Indiana University), some departments, donate books. But it's mostly from people who just come in and give us books," Paul said.

The group sends approximately 60-100 packages with 2-3 books in it to prisoners every week. The group itself does not censor the types of materials prisoners can receive. There are similar programs all across the United States, and in at least every major city. Many of the prisoners spend most of their time in cells, and are in prison for minor offenses.

"I think it's really bad," Paul said of the prison system. "It's just kind of racist. Most of the people in prison are a minority and in prison for small drug charges and nonviolent offenses."

When prisoners are not in their cells they work jobs that pay low wages.

"What's happening now is that a lot of companies like TWA and the Gap are starting to use prison labor because it's cheap and they can still write 'Made in the USA," Paul said. "There's a really big list of all the companies who use prison labor."

So, the big question is whether corporate involvement with cheap prison labor affects the quality of the education and rehabilitation process at prisons.

"I don't have any easy way to say it, but I definitely think it affects it. There's definitely a money-making thing to it," Paul said.

1. Schwartz, M., & Bruin, D. Slave Labor Means Big Bucks for U.S. Corporations. 2001. University of California. http://pub40.ezboard.com

Robin Coe is a journalist and author. She wrote the fantasy novel "Fly on the Wall" and graphic novel "Illustrated Book of Wrath".

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