Artists use mud to protest Dept. of Corrections policy

Why deny used books to prisoners?
MADISON—Wisconsin artists partnered with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners to protest the Department of Corrections’ ban against prisoner’s receiving used books from commercial vendors such as Rainbow Bookstore in Madison.…  And they did it with ecological street art.         

            On Saturday, October 17, 2009  6’ by 9’ stencils reading “Why Deny Used Books to Prisoners?”, “Books Liberate”, and “Missing: 2.3 Million Americans” were sponged in mud by 40 volunteers throughout downtown Madison, the UW campus and spots such as the Dane County jail, DOC headquarters, the Federal Court House, Camp Randall, the Governor’s mansion and public libraries.

            A few stenciling teams were challenged by authorities unfamiliar with the city ordinance which allows for messaging with non-destructive mediums like chalk on public property. A guard at the Federal Courthouse, failing to warn the stencilers of the boundaries between the federally owned part of the sidewalk and the public side, reported he would notify Homeland Security and report “vandalism to federal property”.  Pedestrians were largely curious and sympathetic to prisoners' need for good literature.

            The mud-stenciling action was designed to draw attention to the used book ban imposed by Dan Westfield, Security Chief of the DOC, in November 2008, interrupting a free book service that had been provided to prisoners by Rainbow Bookstore for years without incident. 

Although the DOC currently allows the shipment of new books from Rainbow Bookstore, overturning the used book ban is critical to the survival of the project. The DOC’s justification for their current ban is that the likelihood of contraband being concealed in used books is greater than that in new books coming from commercial vendors.

            In April 2009, the WI ACLU and WBTP filed an open records request asking the DOC for records reflecting instances in which contraband was found in publications from outside sources. The DOC denied this request stating that there were no audit or logbooks.  This is puzzling since earlier in 2009 the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about contraband in which the journalist referred to contraband records from five WI prisons.

            WBTP feels the DOC is unreasonably exaggerating the risks, barring hundreds of prisoners from engaging in much-valued self-education.  The no used books policy ignores the fact that the DOC has security procedures for incoming publications and also contradicts the DOC’s position, and well-documented fact, that increasing literacy and educational opportunities for inmates is directly correlated to the success they will experience when returning to their communities.

            Concerned citizens should phone Governor Doyle at (608)266-1212 or email him at and contact there Representatives (

             Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, a project of Rainbow Bookstore, is a volunteer non-profit organization, founded in the fall of 2006 that sends books, free of charge, to prisoners in Wisconsin and LGTB prisoners nationwide.  This project compensates for the deplorable condition of prison libraries and deficient educational programs for prisoners in Wisconsin; WBTP is often the last educational resource for a captive and largely indigent population.

To learn more - contact Sarah at Sarah is a UW-Madison work study student, working with WNPJ.