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Madison Books to Prisoners mud stencil action

October 18, 2009

Another week, another mud stencil action against prisons. This time in Madison, Wisconsin.
On Saturday, October 17th, 6’ by 9’ stencils reading “Why Deny Used Books to WI. 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.


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.

The action was coordinated in Madison by Sarah Quinn and Camy Matthay and teams of 3-4 people hit various parts of the city. I was on a team with Jesse Graves, a Milwaukee-based artist who developed the technique ( and Dan S. Wang and was encouraged by how the stencils immediately drew people towards us and created a dialog about the issue. We handed out information sheets on the campaign and the vast majority of people that we encountered were supportive of the issue.


I was surprised, however, by how some security guards and police officers reacted to the mud stencils. No one was arrested, but many of the teams, including ours, were questioned at times.

One security guard at the UW Union harassed us for placing two stencils on the sidewalk in front of the building without permission and seemed aggravated enough by our presence to call us in. I told him that any type of scene created or arrest would greatly help the campaign and he left!


Another team was harassed by a Federal Marshall after they put two stencils on the sidewalk in front of a federal court house. The Marshall was irate enough to cite “homeland security” issues and poured water over the stencil to erase its message!

Needless to say, we hit the sidewalk twenty minutes later with a new stencil.


This type of reaction by police and security guards necessitates the need to do more creative actions in public space. Authority figures try to quell any type of dissent under rules, a “clean” city, and the climate of fear that prevents people from asserting their voice.

People need to stand up to this intimidation and take their message to the streets. Mud stencils are simply one way to place important messages in the public and create a meaningful dialog about issues that matter. It is also a way to assert ones right to the city.


During the action, we were prepared for dealing with any potential problems. We had copies of the Wisconsin state stature that notes that “water-soluble” messages are allowed in public space and we had an ACLU information sheet that explains your individual rights when questioned by the police.

In the end, the action was empowering, but it was primarily designed to draw more attention to the D.O.C ban on mailing used books to prisoners in Wisconsin. We chose to spread the mud in the streets, but we need you to spread the word through your networks!

More info:

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 ban also undermines the state’s interest in rehabilitating incarcerated persons. The 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

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.





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