In an interview with Book Club Chicago, Vic Mensa described the details of his Books Before Bars program, which aims to supply prisoners with books that can transform their lives. Mensa also mentioned his Books Before Bars program to High Times in 2022.
Currently, tens of thousands of prisoners are currently locked up on federal and state cannabis-related charges, which is one of the reasons why some cannabis brands and the leaders behind them aim to change that.
Mensa is one of the rappers trying to do that. He explained that Books Before Bars can trace its story back nearly a decade ago. Mensa gave a copy of Huey P. Newton’s autobiography Revolutionary Suicide, 1973, to an incarcerated friend.
The book tells the story of how Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, “mastered his memories and, essentially, transported himself mentally beyond the walls of a prison” during his own time behind bars in the ’60s.
“I’ve seen how the right book at the right time can be a seed which, if watered and natured, can grow an internal freedom even within the walls of a modern-day plantation,” Mensa said. “I started [Books Before Bars] with the cannabis company because I wanted to provide a freedom.”
According to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections, in 2019, the department banned hundreds of books including many about race and racism, before being forced to change its policy after public outcry.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Illinois has the third-highest racial disparity in cannabis possession arrests, with Black people 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than white people despite consuming cannabis at similar rates.
Some of the other books include The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by the Atlanta, Georgia-based rapper to Sister Outsider—a collection of essays and poems by Audre Lorde. Mensa told Book Club Chicago that he buys the books in bulk from the Black-woman-owned bookstore Semicolon which is in the Wicker Park area of Chicago.
Semicolon is scheduled to be closed until August as it converts into a nonprofit model, however Mensa bought books in bulk before the store closed.
Books Before Bars program is an initiative funded through Mensa’s cannabis line 93 Boyz. Mensa said he launched 93 Boyz to “address prison reform and equity in the cannabis space.” Books Before Bars is a big step towards that goal. “Cannabis has been used to snatch freedom from so many families,” Mensa said. “I felt it was imperative to provide freedom in whatever ways I could. It wouldn’t be responsibly aligned with my values to not have that socially minded angle within the larger framework of the cannabis business.”
A year ago, Mensa explained to High Times how he’d be launching a project with Books Before Bars, which was in the early stages at the time.
“Our first project that we’re launching […] with the release of our full strain portfolio is a project called Books Before Bars,” Mensa told High Times in the October 2022 issue. “We’re putting over one-thousand books into Illinois jails and prisons. This is an idea I had from my own experience sending literature to people in prison and seeing how their entire life experience can be—and has been—shifted by reading the right books. If you can’t attain freedom yet in the physical, you can get it in the mental while you’re still in the cage.”
93 Boyz is Chicago’s first Black-owned cannabis brand. Mensa co-founded the brand with rapper Towkio about a year ago. The brand sells eighths of flower, pre-rolls, and vape pens, and you can find strains like Jet Fuel, Gelonade, Gary Payton OG, Rainbow Belts, or The Lotto.