Anarchists Among Us: An Interview with Camy from Wisconsin Books to Prisoners


Last year, I began the process of gathering interviews with anarchists in my town with the ultimate goal of highlighting successful projects and passionate ideas generated by Madison’s friendly neighborhood anti-authoritarians.  I want to dispel the images of anti-this and anti-that anarchists hellbent on militant conflict, and celebrate the things local anarchists are for, some of the things we’re doing now to improve our communities.  I was originally going to share these interviews and articles via paper-and-ink zines, however a lack of enthusiasm and the ease with which I can publish electronically to a larger audience has led me to post said interviews periodically on this here blog.  Below, you’ll find the first of such interviews, starring camy of the Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Project.  If you’re interested in being interviewed (please?), get in touch!


SarahTops: I’m interviewing camy about Wisconsin Books to Prisoners (WBTP). It’s August 7th, 2013.

camy: It’s a sunny day, a little humid. So you were asking about when it started?

S: Yeah, a little bit about the history….

c: It was in 2006 that I got wind that there were folks in Madison (including LB) who were thinking of starting a books to prisoners group. At that time, I was co-sponsoring a weekly documentary film and discussion group at a prison south of Madison and knew prisoners there who were real readers, but frustrated by the limitations of the prison library. The books in the library were antiquated, and prisoners who worked during the day often couldn’t access the library during their “free” time. So, I got on board with the project because I knew there were prisoners out there who loved to read and who would appreciate receiving books on topics of interest to them.

S: Was Books to Prisoners already operating?

c: No. About 10 people came to the first couple of meetings, and the project very quickly got on its feet. I can’t remember what our first source of funding was, but the first home for the library was in the basement of one of the volunteers. Dennis Bergman, who ultimately took complete responsibility for the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project, the only project still in existence that specifically serves LGBT prisoners nationwide, joined us at that time.

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners started out sending books to prisoners nationwide. It was a tactical mistake since we were overwhelmed with requests within a very short period of time; it went from a few requests a week to well over a hundred a month within two years, and this was all via word of mouth within the prison system. We simply couldn’t raise the funds to sustain a project with that kind of demand. So we narrowed our project down to serving just prisoners in Wisconsin. Dennis continued to send books to LGBT prisoners nationwide and ran the project at his expense out of his own home.

Two years after the inception of the project, in 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) banned us. Their reasons were completely spurious and were even in contradiction with the rights prisoners had to receive reading material as defined in the DOC’s administrative codes.

It took us a year and a half of negotiation with the assistance of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to overturn the ban, but only in part. The DOC stipulated that we could send books, but only new ones, a requirement that stymied our work since we don’t have the funds to buy new books, but rely on book donations, which of course are mostly used books. The DOC’s justification for this atypical policy – other states do not ban used books to prisoners – was that books could serve as a vehicle for contraband. At one of the last meetings with the DOC, a rep presented us with this speculative scenario: What if a friend of a prisoner on the outside soaked the pages of a book in methyl-amphetamine, donated the book to us, got his pal in prison to request that particular title, and we overlook the fact the book has been tampered with and send the book to the prisoner? Then, so says the DOC rep, WBTP would have served as a vehicle for contraband. It was ludicrous, a fiction invented to justify a punitive policy, and we pursued the DOC for justification by submitting, with the help of the ACLU, an open records request to see if any contraband had ever entered a Wisconsin prison through commercial book vendors. The result was not surprising: the DOC would not turn over the records, nor acknowledge that contraband had ever entered a prison concealed in a book.

S: So, backtracking a little bit, was the Books to Prisoners project inspired by other such projects in other cities, or was this something new?

c: I wasn’t familiar with books to prisoners projects, but I think other people had been aware of books to prisoners projects in other states.

S: I know there was one in Pittsburgh I found out about in 2005 or 2006.

c: Yeah, Book ‘Em, which is a very well supported project. There’s also a Books to Prisoners project in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; they have a beautiful space that is home to a number of projects doing social justice work. A comparable space in Madison would collectively house the Infoshop, WORT, a performance space, a library for Books to Prisoners… all in a charming old brick post office! There’s maybe as many as 10 different books to prisoners projects in the U.S.

c: If the mission of the project were reformist, that is, to improve prison libraries, I wouldn’t be involved since improving a bad system is antithetical to anarchist ideals; the whole point is to do away with the bad system, to end it, abolish it.

S: I was hoping to get into talking about anarchist principles and how they operate within Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, getting into more of the politics of it. How do anarchist principles play out in Wisconsin Books to Prisoners?

We’re very conscientiously a books to prisoners project. We hope to support the self-determination of prisoners and to provide prisoners literature of interest to them. There’s also consensus among the current volunteers that prisons do not solve the socio-economic problems that drive people to commit “crime”. All of us are outraged by the racial profiling in sentencing, and the fact that there are people languishing in prison for petty offenses while thieves on Wall Street escape accountability.

S: My next question is about the collective that runs Books to Prisoners, … there’s a chipmunk!

“Why is this chipmunk here?”

c: Hi, chipmunk! This is the point where you look for a little picture of a chipmunk to put in next to the little remark on the sidebar. “Why is the chipmunk here?”

S: That’s the quote I’ll pull out of this interview! So, I’m sure not everyone who is involved in the Books to Prisoners organizing collective identifies as anarchist. Are anarchist principles talked about, or has it organically come about? Was it explicitly an anarchist organization to begin with?

c: No, I don’t recall that there was any conversation about anarchist principles at the outset, although I know that of the 10 people or so at the first few meetings, 3 or 4, including myself, would have self-identified as anarchists and/or prison abolitionists. Personal politics didn’t come up. Everyone recognized that it was a valuable project even if only serving to let prisoners know that there were people on the outside who hadn’t forgotten them. The practical needs of making the project work, finding a home, fundraising, and so on, took precedence.

Within the first year, when there was disagreement about whether or not we should respond to a request for Mein Kampf, we were forced to talk about whether we were going to be liberal and undiscriminating, i.e., operate more or less like a public library, or if we were a political group with ideological commitments that would give us certain rights or obligations, as in this case, to refused to abet hatred. This was the first moment I recall where our political orientation became overt.

S: I find it fascinating to hear about the “revolutionary versus reform” aspects of Books to Prisoners projects. I had no idea that that’s something Wisconsin Books to Prisoners struggled with in the past.

c: It is an issue that all books to prisoners groups grapple with. WBTP volunteers who went to the gathering for books to prisoners groups at the Critical Resistance Conference in Oakland in 2008 were upset to discover that a couple of groups had shifted from being projects that sent books to prisoners to projects focused on improving prison libraries. In our minds, working with the state’s DOC was equivalent to conspiring to aid the enemy. What was worse was they didn’t understand the ideological difference between the two activities. The Maoists present, who as a whole aggressively proselytize their ideology to prisoners, were totally disgusted.

S: I’ve heard of other groups, like bicycle co-ops, holding similar large gatherings. It’s interesting to see where your local involvement lies on the spectrum of all these different, similar projects throughout North America. Is Madison’s organization more radical, or less? We seem to live in a little bubble here in Madison.

c: Just a footnote to myself: I always ask new volunteers how they found out about us, but I rarely ask, “Why this project and not another volunteer project?” I really should be paying more attention to that. Sometimes volunteers have been engaged in similar projects in other places they’ve lived, but it still begs the question of why prisoners and not other issues.

S: That’s something that could open up volunteers’ minds too, because I often haven’t thought deeply about why I’m interested in the projects that I am. It would help define where people are coming from.

c: For me, it’s really clear: I love to read and appreciate the stories and information delivered in printed form. I want all people in our society to have equal access to information.

S: Have you lived in the Madison area your whole life, or when did you move here?

c: I moved here about 20 years ago.

S: I’m sure over that time, you’ve seen changes. How do you see the anarchist “scene” in Madison, and how has it changed over time? What makes it similar or different to how anarchism has lived out in other places?

c: There was a period of time when I was a member of the Infoshop and more actively supportive of Family Farm Defenders. At that time, I had more of a sense of what was going on, but I’m removed from that now. I’ve had to attend to caring for members of my family with health issues.

S: I should say there isn’t really a strong “scene.”

c: Oh, I don’t know.

S: It’s hard because these labels are under the radar, so there’s certain radical projects and the radical people involved, but they’re not all anarchist. Madison hosts plenty of socialists, Marxist, social libertarians, and those defying labels. Individuals seem to go through changes where they’re more closely in touch versus stepped-away.

c: I can’t even recall when I became acquainted with anarchist ideas, the whole culture, or basic philosophy. I can’t remember exactly when or how that happened. I know I stumbled on some things from CrimethInc. that I thought were really interesting and really creatively put together. I distinctly remember going to my first meeting at the Infoshop when they were at University Square. Despite the small attendance, the meeting was run formally with people who had things to say being “stacked” in a waiting line, an etiquette I wasn’t familiar with and made the meeting feel oddly stiff and bureaucratic. Fortunately, I eventually met other anarchists of the “Emma-Goldman-I-wanna-dance” variety. Spare me humorless activists.

S: I had similar feelings attending my first meetings at FreeWheel, when it was still a volunteer-run collective. We had a strict agenda for a meeting of three!

[Insert monthly tornado siren tests here, where we talk about gardening ’til we can record well again.]

c: I’m not aware of what the scene is anymore, because I’m distant from it. I used to be far more involved; my family would have said overextended. I started doing the documentary film discussion group at the prison because. after a decade of making several round trips to Madison every week for events. and carting my children about who were unschooled, I was burned out. The prison was only 15 minutes away from my house, and from the beginning, the conversations I had with prisoners were fascinating. I learned a lot from the men at the prison, and I’m very grateful to have had that experience. It was humbling.

My intro to anarchism might have come via the Socialist Potluck in Madison. The Potluck, which always included a program and discussion after the meal, had some sort of cachet, most likely because the founders of the event had fought in the Spanish Civil War (in sympathy with the communists, not the anarchists). Friends of mine that were activists in Chicago had talked about it as this inspiring institution, like “Wouldn’t it be great if Chicago had a regular event like that?” So I had to check it out. I was curious to see what the demographics of the group would be and fully expected the room to be filled with 20-somethings. To my surprise, it was nearly all grey beards, old communists, union-organizers, and Marxists. That evening after the potluck, an actor did an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s play Marx in Soho. My son Ben, who was 13 years old, came with me – he’d read Zinn’s How To Stay Neutral on a Moving Train – and was really taken with the performance and the comments that people made afterward. After that, for many years, we rarely missed the monthly potluck. The programs about current as well as historical events, included speakers like Utah Philips, Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Al Gedicks, and report-backs from protests in Seattle, Quebec, and so on. The Potluck was the centerpiece of Ben’s Social Studies and American History curriculum. Mine too. One of the standouts of the regular cadre of people who came was Lea Zeldin, who was probably in her 70’s at that time. She never failed to clarify that she was “a Proudhonian anarchist.” It’s likely that Lea and Utah were the primary links to my interest in anarchism. I also recall an essay Howard Zinn wrote on anarchism that made a big impression on me. It was included in the Zinn Reader, and had been originally published as the introduction to Herbert Read’s Anarchy and Order.

I’m very interested in hearing your story, Sarah, flipping it around. I should interview YOU!

S: Oh dear! Okay, we’ll set that up sometime.

c: Seriously, how did you make it from A to Z?

S: I was completely apolitical through high school and early college, and then started to become politicized through bike riding and getting involved with the bike collective in Pittsburgh. That got me hearing about locally, collectively run, and as I later found out, anarchist-run organizations in Pittsburgh. It woke me up politically, and I was really scrambling on “What the heck do I believe in?” I was raised by economically conservative, socially liberal parents. In retrospect, I see them as libertarian types. First, I was a card-carrying Republican for voting purposes when I turned 18, because that’s what my dad was. I don’t think I voted Republican. Then I went through this questioning phase; “Am I Libertarian?” because one of my friends who was more politically well-read was like, “You’re totally Libertarian; you’re not Republican.” So I started reading up on that, but I thought, “I don’t think so….” I was really into the pop punk scene through high school, but it was very much the aesthetics and not the politics.

Then in late college, I was touring grad schools. When I was visiting Harvard, I stayed with a grad student who, based on how I dressed, handed me a CrimethInc. book, and said, “Here, take this on the plane.”

c: You, too!

S: I know! Damn CrimethInc.! Now I read CrimethInc., and I’m like, “Oh God!”

c: I know, I know! But you know, it’s probably all written by one person to give you the illusion that it’s a huge anonymous collective. I don’t know!

S: I think it’s five people or something. But that started getting me into anarchism, and when I moved here to Madison, I felt I had a clean slate, and I heard about the Madison Infoshop.

c: Did you get your PhD? What was your major?

S: No, I dropped out. My undergrad was Biology, and I was going to grad school for Genetics. I felt like it wasn’t really meeting my needs. I was on this quest, shaped by the anarchists that I started hanging out with at the end of my college years. It evolved from there. I’m still not well-read in anarchist philosophy and history; it’s kind of like this gut feeling instead….

c: The basic principles are pretty darned accessible.

S: It feels like all my weird idiosyncrasies that didn’t allow me to fit into any other category. I’ve also liked a little conflict in my life, so I think choosing this identity automatically sets you up to have to explain it to people. You’re always up against these stereotypes.

c: Yeah. People who break rules, whether it’s going against the main political agenda, unschooling your kids, dumpster-diving…anti-authoritarian activity in general is just plain interesting to me. People who train-hop… I admire the DIY spirit and the courage people have to go against the grain. I romanticize that spirit.

S: That’s what CrimethInc. does really well, romanticize the culture. Now I cringe a little reading CrimethInc., because I think it’s over-simplifying certain things. But the cultural backbone is important.

Well, I have to get to work. Any last thoughts?

c: No!

S: Well, thank you.