"the Gazz Blogs" - septemeber 20, 2007

Book 'Em - 2000-2006

- great indie film from Pittsburgh

by Steve Fesenmaier

Sandy Berman traveled from his home near Minneapolis a few weeks ago to Pittsburgh to give a presentation in Pittsburgh. He and Jenna Freedman, the daughter of his good friend Mitch Freedman, past ALA prez and the man who brought Sandy to the Frozen North so many years ago and an outstanding librarian activist in her own right, were the keynote speakers for a Progressive Library Skillshare. Another part of the program was "Book 'Em - 2000-2006,"a indie doc by a local artist who calls himself tENTATIVELY, a convenience. It was very interesting and entertaining.

The 42 minute film is about a Pittsburgh-based books-to-prisoners program that send materials all over the U.S. A group of young women and a few men have become prison activists, both for personal and other reasons, shipping books and other print materials to prisoners around the country. The star of the program and the film is Etta Cetera who has a friend in prison and who spends apparently most of her waking hours either shipping books, finding books, running benefits to support the Book "Em program, making works of art which illustrate the horrors of our vast prison gulag, or traveling.

Throughout the film Scott, a visitor from Texas who runs "Inside Books", talks about the joys and tribulations of providing these materials to Texas prisoners. Apparently there are 25-30 programs like this around the U.S. Book "Em can easily spend a few hundred dollars just mailing out a shipment each week.

There are various works of art shown in the film that relate to prison activism including a prison cell constructed from letters from prisoners and a great musical called "Real Criminals." Two ladies sing their own rap music, and two young children perform at a fundraiser for Book "Em. Unlike a typical film about librarians, these people are jumping, running, talking, computing - and still getting out lots of books to over 1,300 people. There are now more than 2.5 million people in US prisons according to the Charleston Gazette editorial.

I found the discussion about rules that pertain to the items they ship to be very interesting. A recent NY Times story reported that prisons around the country were given a list of what books they could have in their libraries, and told to discard many religious books someone somewhere did not like. The Book "Em staff talk about bizarre rules for different institutions that exclude materials on Marxism, anarchism, violence, sex, etc. Given that most prison libraries are full of boring paperback books, many of the prisoners who want to learn languages, study business, check out legal resources, etc. have to go to programs like this. They are being re-victimized by the "prison-industrial complex." What hope do they have to reform themselves when they have no access to other people, sometimes for 23 hours/day, or printed materials? Several times the volunteers talk about the need to help inmates reform themselves using materials not made available officially. I wish that ALA would officially look into this truly evil neglect of our fellow human beings by prison libraries soon.

The Charleston Gazette has an editorial today about the exploding prison system in this country. There are many new films about this same phenomena including a great new Appalshop film called "Up the Ridge" by Amelia Kirby and Nick Szuberla that the South Charleston Museum premiered in August about a new prison in western Virginia. WV itself has many new state, federal and private prisons. What is going on?

Thanks to the Three Rivers Foundation and lots of personal donations, Book 'Em continues to help people who really need it. Hopefully librarians around the country will get a chance to see this entertaining and important indie film. As someone says in this film, it costs someone more money to put a person in prison for a year than send them to Harvard. For everyone's sake, including our brothers and sisters who are someone forced to spend years in prison, librarians and other American intellectuals must take back control of the prison system - and one very cheap, good way to do that is to greatly expand library service in our prison and other state institutions.

As a MLS librarian working for a state library for almost 30 years, I am ashamed of my profession for not doing what these prison activists are doing in Pittsburgh. I know that at one time the WV Library Commission where I work did have an entire section called "Institutions" that did provide library services to people in all of our state prisons, mental hospitals, etc. After the federal funds called "LSCA" (Library Services and Construction Act) were terminated around 1995, local public libraries in WV tried to provide services to local state prisons, hospitals, etc. Now there are minimal library services for inmates. As part of an annual collection of information, WVLC does collect data on all of the prison libraries in the state which can be obtained from me - fesenms@wvlc.lib.wv.us. WVLC staff still provide some donated books to various institutions, and the prison libraries can borrow any WV book through their local public library's ILL program - interlibrary loan.

One person I work with has spoken to state prison officials about certifying their libraries which means having a certain number of books, magazine, etc. Apparently the prison officials don't have the funds or desire to expand their libraries.

All across the country, including WV, I know that county governments have had to cut back their support for their own local public libraries because of skyrocketing prison costs. Will everyone eventually have to ask people like Book 'Em for materials? I hope not.

To obtain a copy of the film, send an e-mail to the filmmaker at - idioideo at verizon dot net.

http://thegazz.com/gblogs/wvfilm/2007/09/20/book-em-2000-2006-great-indie-film-from-pittsburgh/

 

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