Getting Books to Prisoners || Donuts & Broccoli

For a primer on Donuts & Broccoli, please go here!

This week on our second Sunday edition of Donuts & Broccoli, I bring you a podcast that was one of the main sources of inspiration for this blog, and a number of organizations that focus on getting some of the most tightly restricted materials into prisons: books.

Donut: Wonderful, hosted by Griffin and Rachel McElroy

Wonderful is, well, wonderful. The podcast is hosted by husband and wife Griffin and Rachel McElroy—you might know Griffin from the virtual empire run by him and his brothers Justin and Travis McElroy, whose show My Brother, My Brother And Me has run for nearly ten years and spawned a TV adaptation for the now defunct Seeso network.

But Wonderful is a little bit more lowkey than the frenetic energy you might find in some of the brothers’ other ventures. Up until last year Griffin and Rachel ran a longstanding weekly podcast called Rose Buddies which acted like a post-show discussion of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. For a long time, the two watched and enjoyed the love-themed reality shows as freely-admitted trash television, recapping the most ridiculous happenings of each producer-machinated episode and sometimes using that as a jumping-off place to talk about love and their own relationship.

I tuned into Rose Buddies just as I started watching my first (and only) season of The Bachelorette—season 13, featuring attorney Rachel Lindsay as the franchise’s first ever leading woman or man of color. Lindsay’s season was anticipated as a cultural event, which made me curious enough to tune into both the TV show and Rachel and Griffin’s podcast.

But while in many ways Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette was celebrated for its new (and long anticipated) embrace of diversity, it was also a season racked by some of The Bachelor franchise’s worst attributes. There was emotional manipulation of the participants, made worse in this season by the series’ willingness to play up the threat of racial tension and even violence (you can check out how conflict between two of Lindsay’s suitors was played up in an ad here)—and then a massive sexual assault scandal on the program’s spinoff Bachelor in Paradise, handled tastelessly by studio heads.

All of this added up to a program that could no longer be trashy, mindless fun for Griffin and Rachel. They did their best over the course of the season to make their post-show podcast entertaining while still dissecting the problematic behavior of the show’s contestants and showrunners—but eventually, by the end of the disappointing season, the two decided that 13 would be the last Bachelor/Bachelorette season they would cover.

Which finally brings us to Wonderful. Griffin and Rachel decided to redirect their show, which over the years had brought them a passionate fanbase and gave them a way to spend time together working on something creative. After weighing several options they decided to go with a much less structured, more abstract concept: things the two of them find…wonderful.

“Each week,” cites the podcast’s description on the Maximum Fun website, “Rachel and Griffin McElroy will talk about things they love and invite listeners to write in with their treasured items of enthusiasm. Topics may include movies, television, sports, books, drinks, eats, animals, methods of transportation, cooking implements, types of clothing, places in the world, imaginary places, fictional characters, and fonts, to name a few.”

I have to say I enjoy Wonderful more than any of the Rose Buddies episodes that came before it. Everyone always knew that what they were really listening for was Griffin and Rachel’s jokes and easy, comforting attitude. They’re two married people who really and truly like spending time together, whether it’s talking about their son’s milk allergies or how good orange Tic-Tacs are. Some of Rachel’s recurring themes in her favorites things are her “Poetry Corner” where she highlights some of her favorite poems, as well as ice hockey, music, and children’s TV shows. Griffin, who is by trade a video game journalist, talks up a lot of video games like Animal Crossing, as well as different YouTube series and favorite fun facts.

Really I think what I admire most about the show is Rachel and Griffin’s decision to pursue what makes the two of them happy. Some fans left the show when the McElroy’s changed gears, but the hosts were honest about the fact that covering The Bachelor franchise just didn’t make them happy anymore, and feeling complicit in the franchise’s problematic actions was frustrating and unsatisfying.

Leaving behind something that used to make you happy, especially when it’s something public-facing that’s found a lot of success, is a really hard thing to do; admitting to yourself that it’s what you want can be even harder. But Griffin and Rachel managed to do it gracefully (and wonderfully…) and in me have found themselves a loyal listener.

Broccoli: Getting Books Behind Bars

One thing that federal and state prisons have proven to be afraid to put in the hands of inmates? Books.

In just the last year, prisons nationwide have sparked outrage in their crackdown on prisoners’ access to books. Just earlier this summer in Maryland, state prison officials were forced to quickly withdraw their new policies that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called a “virtual book ban.” The policy limited inmates to 10 books every three months, and restricted the vendors that inmates or their families could purchase books from to just two private suppliers.

Maryland’s policy imitated a federal policy that was similarly withdrawn after backlash from prisoners’ rights advocates. According to prison officials, the restrictions are meant to cut down on the trafficking of Suboxone, an opioid alternative that is sold in thin strips that could be concealed in the pages of a book. Both Maryland and New York State have proposed banning letters to inmates in recent years to stop smuggling of the drug, only to once again withdraw those policies after outcry from families of inmates who depend on letter writing to communicate, with costs of phone calls to prisoners infamously high.

But prison officials have proven they care just as much about the danger of the words on the pages as they do about what might be smuggled in between them.

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow has sold over a million copies and is widely praised for its detailed study of the history of the mass incarceration of African-American men. You might find the book on a lot of college syllabi, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it on the shelves of many American prisoners—the book has been uniquely targeted and banned for distribution in various state prisons. Prison officials have cited the book’s “racial overtures” and deemed it “likely to provoke confrontation between racial groups,” according to the New York Times. These opaque reasons are often trotted out to defend the prohibition of certain books in prisons, like in Texas where, as NYT point outs, The Color Purple is banned but, strangely, Mein Kampf is not.

Alexander told NYT that her book being targeted by prison officials is not surprising, saying that “perhaps they worry the truth might actually set the captives free.”

“We should be encouraging people in prison to read as much as possible and not turning books into contraband,” Sonia Kumar, attorney with the ACLU, told The Washington Post.

The truth is that keeping books out of the hands of inmates serves the interests of prisons that need to keep beds full. Prison education and rehabilitation programs are the number one way to reduce recidivism, not only improving the post-incarceration lives of convicts but also saving taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

But as we’ve seen in states like Maryland and New York, these schemes only work under cover of darkness. Prison officials are hoping they can chip away at inmates’ rights without being noticed, but once enough fuss is made, they withdraw their policies with tails between their legs.

Most likely these attacks on inmates’ access to books will continue, getting subtler and less severe with each iteration, with hopes that someday they will find a policy that will provoke shrugs rather than a public crusade. Don’t let it happen; keep paying attention.

In the meantime, here are some local organizations that get donated books directly into the hands of prisoners. All ship nationwide:

DC Books to Prisons — Donate cash or books.

NYC Books Through Bars — Buy a book directly through their site wishlist.

Books Through Bars, Philadelphia — Donate or buy books off their Amazon wishlist.

Locate another organization in your area here.

Thanks for tuning in— stay hungry!

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