Escapist reading

Arline Welty, AB’04, cofounder of Chicago Books to Women in Prison, on why her form of activism is fun.

As told to Anne Ford, AM’99

I thought I was going to be a librarian when I was a kid. My dad was a sign painter, and I remember sitting at his awesome professional drafting table and writing: “I’m gonna grow up, I’m gonna drive a Honda, and I’m gonna be a librarian.” (My grandma drove a Honda.) I never did go to library school—I work in a corporate office—but I love reading. I’m a busy, runaround kind of person; I can never sit down unless I have a book, and then I’m gone for eight hours, no problem.

Chicago Books to Women in Prison wasn’t my idea. It was the idea of some friends, Jack Slowriver [AM’06], Jodi Ziesemer, and Nicole Bussard. Jack lived with me when I was an undergrad. I was 20 years old and just being exposed to new world views. I had never heard of anyone sending books to people in prison, but it sounded good—translating the love of reading into making life more bearable for people we’ve erased as a society.

We started out just sending books to women’s prisons in Illinois, and now we’re doing ten or 11 states, including the largest women’s facility in the United States, which is in Chowchilla, California. It’s very simple: prisoners write to us and request books, and we try to fulfill their requests. Everyone gets three paperbacks at a time. There is no lifetime limit.

Yes, prisons have libraries, but not like in The Shawshank Redemption. They’re really underfunded, so what they’re likely to have is some legal stuff and a box of junk paperbacks from 1985. Do you know what our number-one most requested book is? A paperback dictionary. Number two is blank journals.

In addition, we send a lot of nonfiction health books. And then whatever’s on the best-seller’s list. James Patterson—people really like him. We have folks on death row who write us frequently, saying, “I burn through these books, so just give me something long.”

I go to the post office once a week. You’re just standing there, and they’re stamping, stamping, stamping. The receipt is as long as you are. I remember being at the Hyde Park post office with a granny cart full of these books, and there was a long line. I said, “Hi, everyone! I am sending books to women’s prisons, and I invite you to take a package and mail it!” Sometimes I’d get radio silence, but sometimes people would say, “Oh, I’ll mail some of those.”

There’s a lot of good activism in the world, and a lot of it is sad. But this is fun and joyful. We eat snacks; we read the backs of romance novels out loud. A lot of activism is about competing for how many arrests you’ve had or something. But this is just sort of a comfortable, friendly way to share something you love with somebody who needs it.

One time, someone wrote and asked us for a book about dolphin training. What? But we did it. We thought, “This person has probably asked a lot of people for this book. And we’re gonna be the ones to deliver.”


America’s least wanted
Read about the books prisoners never ask for. Yes, Durkheim is on the list.


Nothing makes Arline Welty happier than a stack of paperback dictionaries, the most frequently requested books at Chicago Books to Women in Prison. The ladder is needed to reach less popular books, stacked near the ceiling in the organization’s tiny storefront space. (Photography by Lloyd DeGrane)