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‘Live and exist’: Prison libraries are important for inmates, advocates say

A Winnipeg group is working to ensure people who are incarcerated in Manitoba have access to books, to help people who are incarcerated start a new chapter.

On Wednesday, Winnipeg’s prison libraries committee (PLC) was busy unboxing, sorting and packing hundreds of books donated by the community.

Many will appear in a book and bake sale next month, but others will find their way into Manitoba’s provincial correctional facilities, which Kirsten Wurmann, the committee’s founder, said is much needed.

“There are no mandated requirements to have libraries in prisons. And so there aren’t any libraries in prisons that are libraries that we think of. There might be a space, there might be a bookshelf.”

She said a variety of books will be sent out.

James Patterson novels, books on addictions and healing, and culture are particularly popular, she said, as are Indigenous books.

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“As we all know, there is an overrepresentation of Indigenous folks in our prisons, and there are some huge needs. Last year, we really realized how we weren’t getting a lot of Indigenous materials donated,” Wurmann said.

Beading books in particular, are highly sought after.

“We can never have enough beading books in men’s and women’s prisons,” she said.

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Vicki Chartrand, an incoming professor at the University of Manitoba’s department of sociology and criminology, said reading is crucial to life after incarceration.

“Reading, learning how to read, education, learning about the world outside of the prison is so vitally important for them to reintegrate, to leave a prison environment and to be able to live and exist within the world around us,” she said.

She noted that many people inside prison are severely isolated from the world around them.

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“I talked to people who’ve been inside (prison for) 20, 30 and actually even 40 years. If they’re going out on escorted, or unescorted, temporary absences, they’re terrified of smartphones. They don’t know how to use the internet, and they’re at such a disadvantage,” she said.

“I think libraries themselves have gotten into the 21st century by bringing (in) everything digitized and bringing in the internet. I don’t know why prisons can’t do that.”

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It’s this access, or lack of access, to current information that PLC member and writer Anna Leventhal says contributes to her passion for the committee.

“We should have a right to have access to information through books. So being able to provide books, and reading, and that kind of information — that kind of knowledge — is just absolutely critical,” she said.

Leventhal also leads creative writing workshops in prisons several times a year, and said language in general serves as a powerful mode of healing.

“It can be a very beneficial practice. In terms of processing your feelings and working through problems and expressing yourself, learning how to express yourself in it in a way that feels sort of healthy,” she said.

Chartrand said some books help inform other healthy practices.

“In terms of the correspondences we receive, some people are trying to upgrade. So (they are looking for) books around school, or education books, but also … they want to get into yoga and find some way to reach some inner balance in their lives,” she said.

Prison library spaces also help form positive relations when on the inside, the criminologist said.

“It’s the people who are accessing the library who create the communities where they’re sharing books, sharing ideas. You often have an informal peer-to-peer mentorship program,” she said.

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It is the same kind of camaraderie Wurmann has seen while speaking to people who are incarcerated.

“I say this story a lot, but I’ve had someone come up and say, ‘Well, I don’t read, but my roommate is going to read to me. That is also just an indicator of the variety of literacy levels out there,” she said.

Wurmann said she hopes the presence of prison libraries facilitates a safe relationship for inmates when their time comes to go back outside.

“We hope that when they re-enter our community that they know that they can come to the library as a place for learning, or relaxation, for storytelling, for programming, beadwork, that type of thing. They will know that that’s a nice, safe place for folks to come,” she said.

Chartrand said it’s that outside community that ultimately helps someone previously on the inside reintegrate.

“What impacts someone from going back into prison is how much community stability and support they have. That’s going to be the biggest criteria or determinant,” she said.

Prison libraries can also do a world of good while people are on the inside.

“When you give them something productive in which anyone (can do) and be a part of, that gives them an identity, and meaning, and ability to live in the world,” Chartrand said.

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Those looking to donate books for the book sale can do so until May 31, and find more information online at mla.mb.ca.

The book sale will be on June 22 at the West End Commons.

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