In the dingy, cramped basement of a Madison bookstore, Irene Toro Martinez, a UW-Madison graduate student, pulled a letter from a large stack and plunged into the life of a California prisoner.

The inmate wrote that her days are hard and lonely and made more so by personal struggle. She is transitioning from male to female and has few resources available to her. She is desperate to read something, anything.

“I’ve started taking hormone shots and would love any information about the transgender life or stories about transgender characters,” wrote the inmate.

This is where Martinez comes in. She’s part of LGBT Books to Prisoners, a Madison-based, all-volunteer effort that last year mailed more than 7,000 free books to hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in 45 states.

It is the largest and most active of the very few groups of its kind that cater expressly to LGBT prisoners.

Searching the shelves, Martinez chose “Redefining Realness,” a memoir by transgender author Janet Mock. She then added three more books to the stack — another memoir by a transgender author and two works of gay fiction.

“Here are some books that I think you’ll enjoy,” Martinez wrote in a note to the inmate. “I hope you’re doing well.”

With that, a prisoner hundreds of miles away received a literary boost.

Empathetic founder

Convicts rarely elicit sympathy, but Dennis Bergren said he identified with their isolation.

A retired Madison school teacher, he came out as gay late in life after years of feeling alone and imprisoned in his body. As a retiree, he began volunteering in the library at OutReach, an LGBT community center in Madison.

Through that work, he connected with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners, a project founded in 2006 at Madison’s Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative. It serves the general prison population, but only in Wisconsin.

Bergren asked if they’d be interested in distributing surplus books from OutReach’s library. They said sure and began adding gay and lesbian literature as an option in their prison brochures. By 2008, with demand growing, LGBT Books to Prisoners spun off as an independent entity.

“Once I got started in this, I just saw that nothing was being done for gay prisoners,” said Bergren, 74. “They were at the bottom of the pecking order.”

Prison libraries often are antiquated and poorly stocked, and access to them is limited for many inmates, Bergren said. This is especially true for gay prisoners, who can end up in solitary confinement and without library privileges solely because prison officials believe they can’t be kept safe among the general prison population, he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections declined to make anyone available to discuss the quality of libraries in state prisons and access to them.

Word of Bergren’s effort spread nationally through newsletters and resource guides published for inmates by humanitarian and prison-reform groups. At the time, Bergren said he was the only one he knew of doing such work.

For several years, the project operated out of Bergren’s Madison house. He solicited books from friends, businesses and nonprofits. He spent as much as $8,000 a year of his own money on postage.

“I don’t want to say I was doing it alone, but I was in charge of everything,” Bergren said. “It was all day, every day, practically. It got to be too much.”

With his health ailing, Bergren stepped down in 2013 and moved to North Carolina to live with a son. Martinez and Melissa Charenko, another UW-Madison graduate student, took over the project.

Rules vary

No one, not even family members, can simply mail a book to an inmate. Prison rules require that books come from approved vendors, such as bookstores and publishers.

That’s why Rainbow Bookstore has always been the project’s sponsor. The relationship deepened in 2013 when the operation moved from Bergren’s house to the bookstore’s basement at 426 W. Gilman St. The store provides the space free.

Charenko and Martinez oversee the effort with three others who make decisions as a five-member collective. The project is funded primarily through donations. In 2014, 91 people gave money, 36 of them through a monthly pledge.

The group will spend almost its entire $8,000 budget this year on postage. Additionally, it has been awarded a $3,000 grant through the Madison-based New Harvest Foundation to start a national reading group for prisoners who are transgender.

About 40 letters arrive each week. A core group of 15 to 20 volunteers fill the requests.

On a recent night, volunteer Brian Hamilton opened a letter from a bisexual prison inmate in Florida who said he was “looking for some books to read to let my mind escape to something better.” Hamilton first consulted a 20-page document that lists every prison in the country and the rules for sending books.

Restrictions vary considerably and can change at the whim of a warden, said Karma Chavez, an associate professor of communication arts at UW-Madison and another of the five who lead the effort.

“It’s completely arbitrary,” she said. “We’ll get packages returned to us that say we violated a rule, yet the rule isn’t listed anywhere.”

Wisconsin prisons generally allow only new, soft-cover books, Chavez said. Although some prisons are fine with any and all “queer” content, objections to it have been on the rise, Martinez said.

All genres

While the Madison effort exists expressly to help LGBT prisoners, it provides books of all kinds. The inmate whose request Hamilton filled, for example, asked for a dictionary, a manual on learning Spanish, and a romance novel.

“We don’t want to pigeonhole people,” Martinez said. “Just because someone is gay doesn’t mean they read only gay fiction.”

Dictionaries and almanacs are among the most popular requests, possibly because the inmates are doing legal research or just want to increase their basic knowledge and don’t have access to the Internet, said Katherine Charek Briggs, a collective member.

Even when an inmate doesn’t ask for anything LGBT-related, the project often is filling a void by providing a sympathetic ear or a safe sounding bound, Martinez said.

“Queer people end up in prison at disproportionate rates, and once there, often face discrimination and abuse,” she said. “We’re a place for them to tell their stories or to connect with other queer people or people who care about them.”

A gay inmate from Texas wrote to thank the volunteers for remembering “the outcasts and the forgotten” in society. “Not only do we receive your special materials, but along with that comes love and care,” he wrote.

Like many of the group’s volunteers, Chavez said she is motivated by a belief that the country’s prison system is broken. In reading inmate letters, she’s learned there are just a lot of normal people in prison, she said.

“Maybe they made a bad decision or have a mental illness or found themselves in poverty or drug addiction, but they’re just humans with feelings,” Chavez said.

Prisoners often thank the volunteers profusely, decorating their correspondence with artwork or sending along a piece of jewelry they’ve made or a poem they’ve written.

“Sometimes I feel defeated, but your books give me hope and something to look forward to,” wrote an inmate from Kansas. “I don’t understand this passion to learn, but thankfully it is stronger than the feeling to give up.”

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