For many years, St. Catherine University students in service-learning courses have worked with the Women’s Prison Book Project, a volunteer-run collective in Minneapolis, to package and send requested books along with notes of support to incarcerated women and transgender individuals all over the country.
When the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the in-person book packing events, the WPBP started a letter writing campaign to keep in touch with their members and to ask them about how the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions in prisons were impacting their daily lives. St. Kate’s Center for Community Work and Learning (CWL) worked with the WPBP to print the letter packet materials and to stamp hundreds of printed envelopes addressed to WPBP members. This made it possible for St. Kate’s service-learning students to participate in the letter writing campaign, no matter where they were participating in their virtual St. Kate’s classes. CWL staff and student workers assembled packets of letter writing kits and sent them to students at their homes so they could individually write and send out individual letters of support to WPBP members as a part of their class service-learning projects.
In their virtual classrooms, students heard from Women’s Prison Book Project members about their mission to connect and humanize through books and communication between those on the inside and those on the outside of prisons. They learned about the increasing rates of incarcerated women in the United States, and about the heavy impacts of the pandemic on those in the prison system.
Some students in The Reflective Women courses participated in the letter writing campaign while reading the St. Kate’s One Read for Social Justice, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, and discussed the connections between the book and the themes that were starting to emerge as WPBP members responded with their own letters to the COVID-related questions posed in the check-in letters from St. Kate’s students and other volunteers.
Between May 2020 and January 2021, ten St. Kate’s service-learning courses sent over 800 letters to incarcerated women and transgender individuals across the United States. As letters are coming back telling stories of life in prison during COVID, the Center for Community Work and Learning plans to continue this partnership to support the WPBP in coding major themes from the letters, and hopefully, will be packing books in person again sometime next year.