A volunteer with Chicago Books to Women in Prison pulls a book from the shelf to mail to someone in prison. Credit: Provided/Chicago Books to Women in Prison

RAVENSWOOD — A local group that provides free books for incarcerated people is boosting efforts to send more highly requested reading materials to prisons.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison is matching the value of donated books up to $1,000 through Oct. 21. The donation campaign is in honor of Prison Banned Books Week since many prisons restrict the kinds of books incarcerated people can have. 

You can support the organization’s efforts by buying books from its wish lists at local independent bookstores Women and Children First in Andersonville and Da Book Joint in Bronzeville. 

Since 2002, thousands of people in prison have written letters requesting the books they want, then volunteers mail the books to them with handwritten notes of encouragement. Just last month, the organization mailed books to 259 people, according to its Instagram

“We do this work because people in prisons have very limited access to information,” said Becca Greenstein, a librarian who’s volunteered with the organization for four years. “Some prisons have libraries, but some don’t. The libraries are usually under-staffed and under-resourced, and the books there are usually pretty old.” 

If you know someone in prison who would like to receive books, you can fill out this form

Chicago Books to Women in Prison has a collection of about 10,000 books, including some written in Spanish, at Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church, 4511 N. Hermitage Ave. 

Volunteers mainly work with people who are incarcerated in Illinois, but they also send books to people in prisons throughout the country. 

“It’s not like we’re sending big boxes of books to prisons and saying, ‘Have at it,’” Greenstein said. “It’s more personalized, we’re really trying to give people what they want to read.” 

The organization’s website features numerous letters from incarcerated people expressing their gratitude for the books. 

“I really enjoyed the last set of books from you,” one letter reads. “This pandemic has been extremely hard on us and reading helps me break away from the depression. Thank you so very much for caring.” 

Another letter reads: “Thank you for the books. I don’t receive mail, so when I get called I know it’s books. I appreciate them very much.” 

People get to keep the books they receive and many share them with others around them, Greenstein said. 

“We know that they really value the books and that they share them with each other,” Greenstein said. “We get letters from people who say they’ve heard about us from their friends, so we know the information is getting passed around.” 

Volunteers send people a wide variety of books. Self-improvement books are popular, but many people also request entertaining books, like fantasy books, mysteries, romance novels and puzzle books, Greenstein said. 

Incarcerated people often ask for educational books that help with getting their GED certificates and books about recovering from addiction, Greenstein said. 

Parenting books are another common request, especially ones about how people can maintain their connections with their kids while they’re imprisoned, Greenstein said. 

In addition to buying books from the organization’s wishlists, people can arrange a time to drop off used books by emailing chicagobwp@gmail.com.  

People can also donate money for postage, which makes up nearly 70 percent of the organization’s budget, or sign up to volunteer

“People get locked up for the stupidest things, and it’s like no one cares about them or like society’s deemed something is wrong with them,” Greenstein said. “The thought that someone is thinking about them, reading their letters and sending them the books they want can help them connect with the outside world.

“Ideally, there should be no prisons anywhere but until we get there, we can alleviate the suffering folks have to go through.” 

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