‘They had no libraries’: Book drive in Winnipeg gets reading into province’s jails

The libraries inside of Manitoba’s jails will have shelves full of books, thanks to a volunteer-run book drive taking place in Winnipeg this month.

The annual book drive is held by the Manitoba Library Association’s prison libraries committee, a group that formed 10 years ago after their chair, Kirsten Wurmann, took an eye-opening tour of the Winnipeg Remand Centre.

“It’s not like Orange is the New Black or Shawshank Redemption. Like, these prisons have no libraries. They had no libraries there when we first started,” says Wurmann.

“I think there were some really friendly corrections officers that were putting some paperbacks into a garbage bag and sending it up to the units, but that was about it.”

Wurmann, who is a librarian and ran a similar committee in Edmonton, says they had to start from scratch to make sure incarcerated Manitobans could have access to the “important resource” of reading but that demand soon followed.

“We started a book program at [the Winnipeg Remand Centre] where we were going in every single week, providing a sort of a library service, finding out what folks needed and wanted and bringing the books in. And then after that, basically we were contacted by Women’s Correctional Centre, Men’s Correctional Centre, Milner Ridge… So, just sort of the word just got out,” says Wurmann.

They now have libraries in all provincial jails across Manitoba, with the exception of Brandon Correctional Centre, and also provide programming like writing workshops.

Wurmann says that reading is important for incarcerated Manitobans “as just an escape, a way to sort of spend time, and also for learning.”

“We really do believe that education and literacy and building that sense of community and belonging is so much more important than having isolation and punishment, you know?

“To build a healthy community, you need to build community, and you need to make connections and you need to care. Those three guiding principles – community, connection and care – that’s what really guides us,” says Wurmann.

She says that sending books throughout the province means their supply dwindles quickly and with a yearly budget of only $500 for the committee to work with, donations and fundraising events like the book drive and bake sale are vital for the people who need them.

Another beneficiary of the sale is Bar None’s volunteer-run Prison Rideshare project, which provides free transportation for families and friends to visit their loved ones in prison or jail.

All books donated to the Prison Libraries Committee will either go straight to the jails or will be part of a pay-what-you-can book and bake sale in June.

The sale of the donated books funds the purchasing of other often requested books, likes ones surrounding addictions issues and also books that teach Indigenous languages.

“Anything that’s Indigenous authors, writers, history, culture. we purchase those, we look for those, we can’t always get those donated so when we do see them donated we will get them right in to the prison because they’re so valuable to those community members who are incarcerated,” says Wurmann.

Indigenous people are over-represented in Canada’s criminal justice system.

From 2018 to 2019, Indigenous people made up 75 per cent of all admissions into custody in Manitoba, but only accounted for 16 per cent of its population according to Statistics Canada.

Wurmann says colonialism and systemic racism are ingrained in the carceral system.

“That means that folks, our incarcerated community members, have a lot of intergenerational trauma and hurt that stem from that colonialism and really it’s important that they are provided and offered programming and resources that can help them heal from some of that intergenerational trauma. And that’s not readily available,” says Wurmann.

You can drop off books at participating locations throughout the month of May and visit the pay-what-you-can book and bake sale on June 17th. Wurmann says they are also looking for volunteers to help with the drive and programming.

You can visit their Facebook page for more details.

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