Photography by Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (books, above); photography by Lloyd DeGrane (Arline Welty, AB’04, below).

America’s least wanted

Women prisoners have their own ideas about what to read.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP)—cofounded by Arline Welty, AB’04, when she was a second-year—sends 5,000 free books a year directly to prisoners who ask. The organization relies heavily on donated paperbacks. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned donations don’t necessarily align with prisoners’ reading preferences.

The bookshelves in CBWP’s cramped storefront make it obvious which books move and which don’t. The lowest, most convenient shelves contain romance, mystery, horror, queer, and African American fiction. Near the ceiling, accessible only by stepladder, are classics, large print, and feminism.

Dictionaries and blank composition books are by far the most popular. Other frequent, hard-to-fill requests include secular books on drug and alcohol recovery; books on hepatitis B and C; urban fiction; urban romance, especially by the author Zane; daily spiritual meditations; books on Wicca; true crime; and lesbian fiction.

Asked for a top ten list of undesirable books, Welty came up with these—unranked, she says, “because they are all equally unpopular.”

Anything by Émile Durkheim Why do people give us Durkheim? For some reason Ethics and the Sociology of Morals seems to get donated, but no thank you.

Cracking the GMAT/GRE/LSAT Most people who are trying to educate themselves are working on their GED. Instead of an LSAT book, a GED prep book would be much more valuable.

The Bible Everyone thinks we need them, but it's actually not too hard to get your hands on a Bible in prison. In comparison, a Wiccan sourcebook or a daily Buddhist meditation book is guaranteed to go out—probably the same day it’s donated.

What to Expect When You're Expecting Sometimes we’ll have ten copies of this, but we have had zero requests in ten years. Does every new mom go out and get a brand new copy of this book? People ask us for books about nutrition, hypertension, diabetes, yoga—any health and fitness things that can be done in a small space, but not so much pregnancy guides.

The Confessions of Saint Augustine We get this frequently, maybe because donors have their own personal agenda. We do occasionally get requests for Shakespeare, but no one’s heard of St. Augustine.

Anything in Oprah’s Book Club We get a lot of them, so we do send them out occasionally—it’s not like we have a ban. If someone asks for three blank journals, we might send two and an Oprah book.

Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul As far as I know, there are no golf courses in prison.

Backlash (By Susan Faludi) Since the beginning, we’ve always had a copy of this. It’s there just in case.

Norton anthologies of literature The one time we do send them is when someone says, “I’m a lifer, give me your biggest book with the maximum number of pages.” In comparison, Norton anthologies of poetry are great. Poetry is actually really popular.

George Ryan’s Rules of the Road Help people drive in Illinois from the comfort of their cell.

To learn more, including how to donate books and get involved, visit the Chicago Books to Women in Prison website or follow them on Facebook.