Michelle: What is one of the biggest challenges your group faces with working with the prison systems?
Jacqueline: All of the different rules! Each prison has its own rules and regulations for sending books to people incarcerated. And these rules can change at any time without notice! Some places allow only softcover, others only new books. Some prisons allow for books with writing in them, others do not. Some allow a max of three books, others five. There is no underlying rules or regulations, which makes it very difficult to keep track. We have big posters saying what places have what rules, and we still find ourselves getting packages sent back because this random rule changed yet again.
Plus, there are some prisons that are trying to prohibit books altogether! A few federal prisons only allow books that people order new from a catalog. Indiana and Michigan state only allow books ordered new from Amazon. These people do not have jobs that they can earn money with and buy new books. If someone makes 7 cents an hour, it would take an entire two weeks to of work to earn $10. Can you reasonably spend an entire paycheck to buy one book? Of course not. Neither can they.
Michelle: Why do you continue to do what you do, despite the challenges?
Jacqueline: Each of us is more than the worst thing we have done. Every person has done good and bad in their lifetime. Yet society wants to throw some people away, as if they are now meaningless. But they are still complicated human beings. And I think a really good way to judge a society is to see how they treat people incarcerated.
The United States does a terrible job when it comes to incarceration. We are “the land of the free” and home to the most incarcerated. Because this country locks up so many of our youth, especially youth of color and youth born into poverty. The prisons are filled with people struggling with mental health issues and born into generational and systemic poverty.
Over 60% of all federal prisoners are in prison for drugs only. Yet only 3% of prisoners in federal prisons are there for assault, aggravated assault, and murder combined. People that struggle with addiction don’t get to go to the hospital; they go to prison. People that cannot feed themselves or pay rent have to resort to property crimes and they, too, end up in prison. Prisons here don’t keep society safe. Instead, they line the pockets of rich business men—the 13th amendment prohibited slavery EXCEPT for punishment of a crime.
So many people incarcerated are forced to work jobs for on average 6 cents an hour. But their labor allows for others to get rich. It’s modern day slavery. In fact, 1 in 3 black men in the US will spend some time incarcerated. And locking one person up destroys families. It rips children away from their parents. It causes so much trauma beyond just the person getting locked up. And the vast majority of times, it is for drugs and property crimes.
Getting a book might not seem like a lot, but it is one thing that I can do each weekend to allow these people to feel somewhat human, in a system that makes they feel worse than garbage. Sending a simple message can make someone’s entire month. Plus, data is very clear—people with access to education while incarcerated have a significantly better chance of staying free.
Michelle: What is one concrete way people can help your mission?
Jacqueline: People can donate! Each package costs about $5.50 to send and 100% of our funds go to the cost of shipping. Everyone with Midwest Books to Prisoners is a volunteer. We send up to 100 packages of books each week, so the cost of shipping really adds up. You can check us out at MidwestBooksToPrisoners.org