We are a trans-affirming, racial justice-focused, prison abolitionist project sending books to incarcerated LGBTQ-identified people across the United States.
Abolition & project values
We are a prison abolition project. This means we believe that no people should be incarcerated. The description below from Critical Resistance helps describe this politic:
[Prison Industrial Complex] abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.
Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.Critical Resistance, criticalresistance.org, What is the PIC? What is Abolition? Accessed 7/9/2019. http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/
Some of the ways we embody abolition work at BtP include:
- We serve incarcerated people directly and refuse to serve prisons, their libraries, or the larger prison industrial complex (PIC).
- For example, we strive to purchase supplies from companies that do not participate in the PIC. Opaque supply chains, the ubiquity of prison labor, and, unfortunately, financial constraints can make this challenging. We welcome feedback and new information to help us direct our spending.
- We elevate individuals’ requests and honor their own agency over their information needs.
- We put effort into personalized notes to connect with and affirm the humanity of people we serve.
- When we host service learning students we highlight abolition education in their readings and discussions.
- Organizers have presented on LGBTQ+ prison abolition in the name of LGBT BtP, including at national and local conferences and for high school and college classrooms.
- We support and partner with abolitionist groups when possible, including the Derail the Jail coalition when it was active and Black and Pink regionally and nationally.
To learn more about abolition, see our Resources page.
- We put effort and intention into building a queer community space: warmth, name & pronoun introductions if desired, answering questions, responding to feedback.
- We provide snacks when possible and lunch during Saturday sessions to break bread together.
- We prioritize making all of our volunteer sessions, public events, and volunteer socials alcohol-free spaces.
- We build an events calendar into our weekly newsletter in order to uplift partner organizations and relevant opportunities.
- We share program updates and decisions during Intermission (a community break in the middle of each session).
- We share our processes and experiences with other books to prisoners programs at their request through a national listserv.
- When we make a mistake we respond or amend quickly, publicly, and directly in response to the critique or issue at hand.
- For example, we hosted a card-writing event in an inaccessible space. After community response, we posted an apology & accountability statement in our newsletter and on Facebook and will now always host in wheelchair accessible spaces. We are also now partnering with Disability Pride Madison.
- We constantly reflect on and check ourselves on our policies.
- For example, when we found out we were serving disproportionate numbers of white incarcerated people, we changed our screening process to accept all requests from people of color without requiring an initial identity disclosure.
LGBT Books to Prisoners is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, inclusive of identities across the spectra of gender, sex, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, and other socially and historically marginalized identities. In particular we seek to create a space that is affirming and celebratory for trans, non-binary, and queer people and for all people of color.
Volunteers, organizers, and guests in our space are all expected to work together toward building this space by being attentive to our behaviors toward ourselves and others.
Examples of unacceptable behaviors might include:
- Body-shaming and food shaming
- Policing of gender presentation such as clothing or makeup
- Intentionally or persistently calling others by inaccurate names or pronouns
- Unwanted touching
- Continuing to pursue a conversation someone has opted out of
- Unwanted photography or recording
Examples of behavior we want to model and uplift include:
- Asking for consent before touching someone, including casually
- “Would you like a hug or high five hello? Feel free to say no!”
- Asking before you ask
- “You mentioned something about XYZ, can I ask you more about that? It is fine to say no.”
- Setting personal boundaries
- “I’d rather not talk about that. Let’s change the subject.”
- “I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can I set up a workspace in a quieter area? Is there something else I can work on?”
- Checking in with each other
- “How is it going? Would you like to change jobs? Want a break?”
- “Wow, it’s hard to hear you say that. Can I ask what you meant by xyz?”
- “Thanks for telling me your pronouns. Would you like me to intervene if I hear someone misgender you?”
- Thanking each other.
- Encouraging questions about the program, tasks, prison, abolition, and other topics relevant to the work.
Those engaging in harassing or abusive behaviors will be asked to alter their behaviors and may be asked to leave the space or to stop volunteering. We are working on list of clear steps you can expect as part of this process.
We will also address actions and behaviors that fall below the threshold of “harassment” like in the list above. If you are uncomfortable with someone’s behavior, whether in the space or outside of it, you may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also approach any organizer directly. While recognizing that sometimes discomfort is an opportunity to challenge our own transphobia, racism, and other power dynamics, we want to hear what you are experiencing and what might help you thrive in our space.
LGBT BtP is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Because of the requirements for a nonprofit, we have to indicate a president, treasurer, and secretary in our legal paperwork.
Functionally, we have a horizontal organizing collective of 6-10 volunteers who participate in consensus decision-making to manage the project. Organizers take on the responsibility of additional tasks, including:
- Leading volunteer sessions, which includes training and supervising volunteers, answering questions, and assigning tasks as needed.
- Working to maintain a safe and welcoming space.
- Contributing to minor and major decision-making processes through discussion with the other organizers.
- Taking the initiative when situations arise that require a response or action.
- Managing the organization’s finances and supplies.
- Representing LGBT BtP in communications and collaborations with other projects, organizations, groups or individuals.
- Actively recruiting collaborators, donors, and volunteers.
Organizers also do all the same tasks as volunteers and strive for a horizontal volunteer environment in the basement.
Organizers are typically volunteers who have a long history with the project, can be responsive to and manage large amounts of communication and information, can facilitate and train, are dependable to run and manage sessions, and are continuing their own work on abolition, LGBTQ+, and racial justice politics. If it sounds like you or someone you know would be a good fit for this work, please let us know and we’ll start a conversation.
Organizers as of July 2019 include: Katherine Charek Briggs, Melissa Charenko, Debbie Chasman, David Clerkin, Bryan Davis, Cabell Gathmann, Shauna Koszegi, Teresa Uyen Nguyen, Sandy Olson
LGBT Books to Prisoners (LGBT BtP) was born out of Wisconsin Books to Prisoners (WI BtP) in 2007 when Dennis Bergren attended one of the group’s information sessions. He asked if they would be interested in sending out LGBT books to those in prison. The group enthusiastically agreed, adding LGBT books as a choice in their brochures. Dennis began getting surplus books from OutReach, where he volunteered on the library committee. He had recognized that gay men and other LGBTQ+ people were writing looking for specific information and decided to take on that work specifically, eventually turning the first floor of his house into a library and fulfilling requests on his own. This work expanded beyond Wisconsin, and Dennis was nearly single-handedly sending books to people incarcerated in over 40 states.
When Dennis was no longer able to keep up with the scope and demand of this work, then-graduate students Melissa Charenko and Irene Toro Martínez reinvigorated the project. They moved the project to the basement of Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative (then on Gilman St. in Madison) because of the bookstore’s shared values. WI BtP had also formed as a Rainbow project, and was already using part of the basement space. The two projects shared space at Rainbow as part of a community of organizers and activists.
During our time at Rainbow, LGBT BtP expanded our volunteer and organizer groups as well as engaged in meaningful projects external to the primary BtP work of sending packages in response to letters. For example, Melissa spearheaded a Trans Book Club project, which sent trans literature to trans people in our database alongside discussion questions. Participants sent us their responses which Melissa shared with participants and compiled for the authors, who wrote a response for us to share back to participants. Authors involved in this project included: Janet Mock, Imogene Binnie, Casey Platt, and Julia Serano. Participants were able to feel seen and connected. While at Rainbow, LGBT BtP also expanded its stock of LGBTQ+ materials by beginning an ongoing partnership with the Lambda Literary Foundation to receive and distribute their spare review copies.
In 2016, Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative closed, and both BtP projects moved into the Social Justice Center (SJC) Incubator on Williamson St. in Madison. The projects merged their libraries and work space and hope that the SJC will be a semi-permanent home. At this time LGBT BtP began a partnership with A Room Of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison to receive bookseller status in order to continue our work.
Since moving to the SJC, LGBT BtP has built a larger community of volunteers and organizers and has engaged in additional special projects, including a partnership with the UW-Madison Archives (see our LGBTQ+ Archives section) to house our archival materials. We are the recipients of an Arcus grant that allowed us to purchase and continue to distribute $5,000 of books by and for trans women of color. In addition, we became a formal 501(c)3 in 2017 after long term relationships with both OutReach Madison and the PC Foundation as our fiscal sponsors.
In the media
Local and regional news outlets sometimes cover LGBT BtP in their articles and profiles. See a selection of these articles below in chronological order.
LGBT Books to Prisoners
Winona State University (Minnesota), May 14, 2019 by Mary Jo Klinker
Winona State class, local bookstore team up to put books in the hands of LGBTQ+ prisoners
Winona (MN) Daily News, March 27, 2019 by Madeline Heim (cannot read with AdBlocker on)
David Clerkin: On the Importance of Sending Books to LGBTQ Prisoners
Profiles in Pride, March 1, 2018 by Ally
This Rock Star Is On A Mission To Donate LGBT Books To Prisoners — Here’s How You Can Help
Bustle, November 4, 2016 by Kristian Wilson
Laura Jane Grace wants you to help send books to LGBTQ prisoners
MTV, November 4, 2016 by Sasha Geffen
LGBT Books to Prisoners, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention
National Book Foundation
For gay prisoners nationwide, Madison effort provides a literary lifeline with free books
Wisconsin State Journal, January 25, 2015 by Doug Erikson (cannot read with AdBlocker on)
For gay prisoners nationwide, Madison effort provides a literary lifeline with free books
Chippewa Herald, January 25, 2015 by Doug Erikson
Janet Mock Raises Nearly $8K (and Counting) in Books for Trans Prisoners
Colorlines, December 3, 2014 by Jamilah King