Photos and slideshow by Sarah Witman. Music by Joe Anderson. Click tab below slideshow to view captions.

Like many other powerful objects, books have become the object of scrutiny by the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin. 

Most bibliophiles could attest to the strength of a book by means of its content, but the DOC has applied a different meaning. Regulation on these everyday objects has increased in state prisons over the past several years, out of concern they could be used to conceal weapons or illegal substances. Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Project, a group that operates out of Madison’s Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, seeks to address this very issue.

“We think, ‘What could be less threatening than a book?'” said Elizabeth Severson, a Madison retiree and Wisconsin Books to Prisoners volunteer.

The group aims to place books directly in prisons, in accordance with the institutions’ safety-oriented restrictions, Severson said. Inmates in Wisconsin prisons are restricted to 25 reading materials in their cells at one time. They have access to typewriters and in some cases computers, but are not connected to the Internet. Family members, friends and other individuals may not mail books to inmates. With WBTP, inmates request books through letters, and group members try to send a package of paperbacks in response. 

John Peck, a volunteer at Rainbow Bookstore and original member of WBTP, said the organization is not the first of its kind. It was founded in 2006 by volunteers like Peck, when an Illinois group expressed that it was struggling to meet the growing needs of inmates from neighboring Wisconsin asking for books. Soon after forming, it partnered with a program run by Madison resident Dennis Bergren that uniquely supplies LGBT-focused books to correctional facilities nationwide.

The books collected by WBTP are entirely from bulk donations by Half Price Books and contributions to the group’s off-State Street location by Madison-area residents, Severson said. She said the DOC has instructed members of the group that books must be new or gently-used paperbacks, sans writing in the margins of any kind. After being sorted, they are sent directly to the inmates who requested them. 

“It’s up to the person in charge of the mailroom who opens the package, and if they don’t accept the books because they think they look used or objectionable, they either throw them away or send them back to us,” Severson said, explaining that inmates who do not receive their books often follow up with letters. “If they send them back to us, we have to pay postage again.”

She said frequent requests include dictionaries, how-to or DIY books for carpentry and other skills, and books on math, art, religion, philosophy and African-American history.

“Dictionaries are our most requested book. The price of a dictionary at the prison store is about 30 cents an hour, which can be a week’s worth of wages,” Peck added. 

Prisons definitively house men and women who have committed crimes deemed offensive by our laws. But when it comes to what these people should do once inside, there are multiple interpretations: Is punishment the ultimate goal, or is it retribution, protection, deterrence or reform? Whatever the case may be, WBTP members say they see books as the best means to ensure conditions in prison do not hamper life after release.

Peck said the ban on donating used books was enacted two years after WBTP formed. Although this timing is not necessarily correlated, he said the rule has caused the program additional pressure.

“[This rule is] very restrictive as compared to other states,” Peck said. “It greatly limits our ability to provide books to prisoners.”

The group meets once a week, and works to ready around 30 packages for shipping, Severson said. Camy Matthay, who has been with the group since ’06, said each week’s round of packages will cost around $100 for postage alone. Each package contains about three books, to try to keep up with demand; WBTP receives mail on a daily basis. Matthay hopes that once an inmate is done with one copy, it will be shared among friends or donated to the prison library to maximize use.

“These [books] are so needed to give [inmates] a little insight on entering a field when in prison,” said Hannah Develmon, a volunteer with WBTP whose son was recently incarcerated. She said she volunteers to support her son and others who might want to better themselves in prison through reading. “At least give them the enlightenment or the desire to get a job when you get out of prison.”

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections launched its own effort to fill prison libraries in 2010, and as of last year reported it had collected more than 3,500 books from local donations. WBTP chooses a different tack by mailing books straight to inmates.

“Prison libraries are really bad news; some of the books are 30 years old, and there’s a waiting list just to get a dictionary,” Peck said. “We would rather get a book directly to a prisoner so at least they have a book.”

WBTP surveyed inmates in eight of the 21 prisons they service, and the results were compiled by Kathleen Wilcox, an individual who works with prison libraries. These surveys found access to books and computers could be denied across the board for a variety of reasons: In multiple cases, access was reportedly determined by prison employees’ moods. Inmates had access to the library between four and 20 hours per month, and at one prison they must submit a request two weeks in advance for a 50-minute library pass. The most consistent complaints were that the libraries had small, outdated collections lacking in high-demand genres.

The Federal Correction Institute in Oxford, located 60 miles north of Madison, is the only federal prison in the state of Wisconsin. Its 2009 inmate handbook reads, “What you make of this confinement is up to you. … We encourage you to develop goals which will make a positive difference in your future. You should begin planning for your eventual release and return to society the day you begin your sentence.”

However, at numerous correctional facilities in Wisconsin, it seems this is simply impossible. Although law libraries are sometimes available, inmates reported via the survey that little to no instruction was available, and that access was only allowed leading up to an impending court date. Oxford is also one of a few prisons in the state, if not the only one, that gives inmates access to state law in its library, according to the handbook.

Wisconsin’s spending for corrections has doubled in the last decade, taking about $500 million more per year as of fall 2010. Even with all this money filtering in, WBTP volunteers aim to fill the education gaps they believe remain in the prison system: by guaranteeing inmates access to books.

“It’s just a basic human right; people have the right to read,” Peck said. “If you are incarcerated, you should have the opportunity to better yourself. If they spend all this time locked up, why not use it as an educational opportunity? Giving people books is the most basic way you can do that.”

Although a majority of the thousands of letters WBTP receives are requests for books – whether hyper-specific titles, or just any books at all – too many to count are expressions of gratitude for the services provided.

“Thanks to [WBTP], offenders are able to open their minds and learn new and positive ideas, occupy the long empty hours with fantasy and most importantly subject themselves to new ways of thinking,” an inmate from Green Bay Correctional Institution wrote in 2009. “With the economy’s failure, the Department of Corrections has cut programs that include the library and reading materials. … The impact a book has on an inmate far exceeds the boundary of one man’s mind.”

At a broader level, 97 percent of inmates will someday return to their Wisconsin communities. Severson begs the question of what purpose Wisconsin prisons serve, if not to better their occupants in some way.

“Wouldn’t we want them to go back to their communities having expanded their knowledge”? Severson said. “These men and women are coming back here.”

The Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Project meets each Wednesday night at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative (426 W. Gilman St.). Gently-used books may be dropped off there or at four other drop-off sites around Madison. Monetary donations for postage should be made out to “PC Foundation.” For those on campus, a university student org called Jail Library Group has book depositories at Helen C. White Hall and College Library for Dane County correctional facilities.