Spring postage drive helps Prison Library Project thrive

 

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

The Claremont Forum library receives upwards of 300 letters from inmates around the nation weekly requesting books from the donation-based nonprofit, according to data recently compiled by Forum board member Rachel McDonnell.

The nonprofit is home to the Prison Library Project, which supplies books to incarcerated adults.

“They write us a letter. They’ll say my name is such and such and I’m looking for such and such book. They’ll give us a list of genres and then once we get that list we browse through our shelves, see what we have and then send that book and fulfill that request,” Mendez added.

Being a local and used bookshop, the Forum receives book donations from all around Claremont including residents, the Claremont Colleges and the Helen Renwick Library, as well as from across California and the nation.

First conceived in 1973 by Ram Dass and Bo Lozoff in Durham, North Carolina, the Prison Library Project moved to Claremont in 1986 and one of the largest books-to-prisoner projects in the country. Each month, the Prison Library Project provides nearly 850 books to inmates at over 300 prisons across 42 states. In 2019, the project was able to mail over 10,000 books to inmates.

“We’re not just a conventional bookstore. We’re a nonprofit and our cause, and our mission is, the Prison Library Project,” Mendez said. “All the proceeds from the Claremont Forum bookshop helps fund the Prison Library Project.”

But why send incarcerated people books when their facilities likely have libraries? According to Mendez, many incarcerated people don’t have access to books.

The project cites results from a National Adult Literacy Survey, overseen by the National Center for Education Statistics, which found that about 70% of adult inmates cannot read at a fourth-grade level.

“We tend to send books to help inmates educate themselves and become more literate,” Mendez said. “In the long term, we hope they gain something out of that. That it prevents them from re-committing a crime or going back to prison.”

“We just want to better the world if we can, even if it is on a small level,” Mendez added. “People will say, ‘oh they’re just sending books…’ If one out of those 2,500,000 inmates are impacted by a book and they can improve or develop their life … have a better life prior to them being incarcerated … we’re winning in that aspect [and] that’s a victory for them. That’s the reason why we do it.”

Mendez said the project typically sends out educational books like dictionaries, thesauruses, Spanish to English vocabulary builders, foreign language and general education development (GED) books to those incarcerated. Inmates also request children’s books and popular novels.

But a few variables such as limited man power, high shipping costs, and a limited budget, keep the project from responding to all the letters it receives. According to Mendez and Forum data complied between 2019 and 2021, the project can only fulfill between 54 and 59 percent of letters it receives.

Mendez said if they were to respond to all the letters they get each month, it would cost the project about $2,000 to cover postage, funds the nonprofit just doesn’t have.

“Each book is about three dollars [to ship], but some of them will be, depending on how dense the book is, it will be almost four or five dollars, and it adds up,” Mendez said.

This year, the Prison Library Project decided to launch the spring postage drive, a fundraiser attempting to raise over $6,000 to help cover the cost of shipping books to inmates for the next few months. The goal, if met, will help the project respond to almost all of its current requests, according to Mendez.

The campaign has already received over $2,400 towards its goal as of Wednesday and the drive will conclude May 31.

Residents can donate to the spring postage drive online at claremontforum.org/event/spring-postage-drive. For more ways to donate, contact the Forum at (909) 626-3066.

In addition to seeking monetary donations, the Prison Library Project also has an Amazon Wishlist including highlighters, rubber bands, packing tape and shipping labels to help package and mail requested books.

Residents can also donate their personal time by helping to wrap the books for shipment.

Used books can be dropped off at the Claremont Forum Bookstore, 586 W. First Street in the Packing House, anytime between noon and 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

“The books that you donate here really make a difference. These books are being sent out to prisons and to inmates who are beyond grateful that we’re able to send a book like that to them,” Mendez said.

Interfaithfully Speaking: Connecting interfaithfully with people in prison

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by Judith Favor, member of Claremont Friends Meeting (Quakers)

I’ll tell you four stories about Claremont people who connect interfaithfully with people in prison. But first, a note about the word religion. It originally meant “that which binds together,” but religious words can also be used to tear people apart. In Claremont, we commune freely in interfaith gatherings. We move safely between churches, mosques, meeting houses, meditation halls, sanghas and chapels, but in many places religious beliefs divide people. Religious disputes are common at the Central California Women’s Facility, where inmates from different traditions carve out little pieces of truth and hold on for dear life. What eases the pressure and brings peace? Open-hearted listening.

Rick Moore’s story comes first because he was my first mentor in the art of listening. He founded the Prison Library Project in Claremont to hear the voices of those behind bars. I met Rick in 1998, and was touched by his care for incarcerated persons. I became the second PLP volunteer, reading letters, hearing yearnings, and doing my best to meet requests for books. Many want dictionaries. Responding to handwritten letters from inmates is a low-risk form of listening. Several Pilgrim Place residents read and reply to hundreds of letters each month. The Prison Library Project needs more volunteers. Your caring attention can make a big difference.

The second story is about Claremont women. Twenty-plus years ago, I was a newly-minted Quaker, led by the Spirit to befriend a woman sentenced to die for her crime. Rosie requested pen-friends for others on death row, and Pilgrims took up the call. Gail Duggan recruited Presbyterian women to befriend women at CCWF. Carolyn Francis inspired Claremont United Methodist Church women to form a group called JUDI—“Just Do It”—to offer care, prayer and listening ears to incarcerated women. When Rev. Rosemary Davis rented a van, a bunch of us traveled to Chowchilla to visit inmates with whom we’d been corresponding. Before long, Catholic nuns started “Get On The Bus,” and Claremonters of many faiths gave up Mother’s Day weekend to accompany kids eager to share hugs, stories and games with their moms behind bars.

The third story is mine. Early in our relationship, Rosie requested Pepsi each time I visited. I chose grapefruit juice. After a decade or so, she switched from caffeinated soda to apple juice, but the rest of the routine remains the same. Female officers strip-search Rosie, then escort her to the visitor center in handcuffs and ankle chains. I wait in attorney room A or B. Once we are locked in together, she has privacy to speak her truth without being overheard. I’m a Quaker and Rosie was raised Catholic. I’m a pretty good listener, genuinely curious about what matters most to her. I don’t interrupt, don’t change the subject, and do ask open, genuine questions. Our conversations can be painful, confessional, semi-serious, silly or completely hilarious.

When we get hungry, she signals the guard to let me out. While I wait in line at the vending machines to purchase our pre-packaged lunches, Rosie sculpts brown paper napkins into the shape of roses. She sets the table with plastic forks and packets of Tabasco sauce. An armed guard lets me in, locks the door and returns to his station. I place food on the table and sit across from my friend. We bless the drinks, the burritos and the salads, then we share stories. Rosie does most of the talking. Locked up together at CCWF in Chowchilla, two women of different generations and religions celebrate prison communion with food, drink, and vulnerable conversation.

The fourth story is ours. She and I co-wrote “Friending Rosie: Respect on Death Row.” The idea came in 2019 while I was a patient at the Pilgrim Place Health Services Center. Weak from multiple fractures, struggling with rehab, I was awakened in the night and heard “Write a book with Rosie.” First I protested, then accepted the sacred call. Rosie objected to my initial proposal and refused, so I rewrote it. An “anchor committee” of Quakers helped me season it. Once Rosie and I reached common ground on the shape of the book, it took a long time to interweave her letters, my memories and the perspectives of her mother and sister.

“Friending Rosie” is a “porous” book, meant to be opened at any page by readers seeking insight or information. Our friendship story is structured around themes of faith and practice that reflect our purposes here on earth. Rosie wants to speak the truth, seek forgiveness and become a better person. My purpose is to honestly convey the little miracles that can happen spiritually when one friend is locked up and one is free. Seeing things differently, and tentatively expressing our inner truths brings both participants into sacred presence where healing and transformation take place. Prepare to be surprised—mutual gifts await!