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!

Book Review | Almost Innocent

ALMOST INNOCENT

From searching to saved in America’s criminal justice system
by Shanti Brien, 2021, www.amplifypublishing.com, ISBN-13:978-1-64543-203-6

Reviewed by Pam Hawkes, President, Claremont Forum Board of Directors

This book is an easy and fast read. The author, a criminal appeals attorney, shares her two decades of representing convicted criminals, most of them still serving their original sentence. Her clients have been granted an appellate hearing, which are many times based on their own self-researched, hand-written, multi-page writ of habeas corpus, a document used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful. Ms. Brien presents each of her selected cases as a short story, some ending well, most ending badly as so often, she reports, happens to prisoners who, she explains, wage an up-hill battle to ask the court to reduce or modify their sentence.

Some cases are just lost in a cluttered and complicated justice system, one which too often strives to put misjudged or mishandled cases behind them. She writes that she’s often asked at dinner parties, “Why waste your time and energy and why should the government waste so many resources on criminals in federal prisons and on death row having decent, if not comfortable, lives provided by the taxpayers.” She offers that instead of criminals wasting money by constantly appealing, perhaps the government is wasting taxpayers’ dollars by charging people with crimes and upholding convictions instead of admitting their mistakes.


For each vignette, she explains the background, original trial, and resulting sentence. Many of her clients had incompetent legal representation or overwhelmed legal defenders, or in some cases, the crime for which they were convicted, sometimes a “third strike”, is no longer a crime. She presents her journey as an appeals attorney dedicated to helping her clients while trying to balance family life, special needs children, and other stressor including traveling around the country in support of her husband’s career – a former NFL kicker.

What prompted her to write this book is a personal legal happenstance that puts her personal life and her husband’s real estate business in jeopardy, causing the reader to stay attentive to the time-to-time glimpses she reveals as she travels her own legal journey. She is also motivated to tell the story of a justice system full of inequities and challenges, one as motivated by dealing quickly with complicated cases as much as discovering the truth. She personalizes her clients with glimpses of their supportive families as well as their unfortunate personal circumstances.

In just 216 pages, Ms. Brien gives her readers much to think about.

Inequality in the U.S. Justice System

Inequality in the U.S. Justice System


From The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

The Brennan Center’s Justice Program seeks to secure our nation’s promise of “equal justice for all” by creating a rational, effective, and fair justice system. Its priority focus is to reduce mass incarceration while keeping down crime. The program melds law, policy, and economics to produce new empirical analyses and innovative policy solutions to advance this critical goal.

America’s criminal justice system is in crisis. It is both inequitable, placing a disproportionate burden on communities of color, and extremely expensive, costing $270 billion a year.

What’s more, our current approach is not necessary to protect public safety. Research conclusively shows that high levels of imprisonment are simply not necessary to protect communities. The Brennan Center has found that around 40 percent of America’s prison population is incarcerated with little public safety justification — in other words, they are behind bars unnecessarily.

Understandably, voters across the political spectrum have lost faith in the fair administration of justice, and the urgency of criminal justice reform continues to be a rare point of bipartisan agreement. Despite this voter consensus — and with some notable exceptions — policymakers generally have been slow to respond.

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, 2021, by Carol Anderson

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, 2021, by Carol Anderson


Reviewed by Merrill Ring, Claremont Forum Board Member

One of the stories about the existence and nature of the Second Amendment is that, since the Founders were opposed to a standing army and rejected Constitutional provisions for one, they fell back on the idea of having citizen militias perform any necessary military functions in the new country. To perform those functions, the Founders needed to make it clear that those militias needed weapons. Given the financial arrangements of the day, that meant that individuals who joined the militias must have their own weapons. Hence the 2ndAmendment.

Today we continue to think of the citizen farmers taking on the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord. However, what Carol Anderson does is to cause us to rethink those notions: was providing a surrogate army the only reason that the 2nd Amendment exists? Does the Lexington-Concord picture of what the militias were expected to do accurately represent what in fact they were? Her book provides a No answer to both questions.

If you look at the debates about the Constitution among the Founders, what is dominant is not the question of what to do in the absence of a standing army. Rather, what the debates were all about is the need to have armed militias to suppress slave revolts and to capture escaped slaves. Here our heroic picture of Patrick Henry (‘Give me liberty or give me death’) is altered: he was the main spokesman for making sure that the maintenance of slavery was protected by arming militias – the Constitution would not have been achieved if he, as the leader of the pro-slavery caucus, had not been satisfied by an amendment allowing armed militias.

If you look, as Anderson does, at what the militias of the day actually did rather than see them through the picture of the Lexington-Concord story, it is clear that they existed as protection against Haitian-type insurrections (a great fear of the slave owners) and that their use was to protect the institution of slave ownership by hunting down those who escaped from their condition.

The bulk of Anderson’s book is taken up with tracing how the 2nd Amendment was used again and again through American history to prohibit Blacks from owning guns. The amendment does not enshrine the right of all citizens to own a weapon (as the Supreme Court thinks) but to give a certain class of Americans the right to own weapons (whether they belong to a militia or not) by denying the right of self-defense to outsiders (“niggers, coolies and Indians” is the phrase used.)

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American Studies at Emory University

Letters from Inmates – Fall 2021

Letters from Prisoners

. . . The Prison Library Project has been very helpful with the service they provide. Plenty of times they have provided me with useful self-help books. Like a dictionary to help with my spelling and help me learn more words. It was needed a lot because I write poetry & would like to write books. . . . when I’m able to get a job I’ll earn more money.
Kenneth M., Lamesa, TX

I want you to know how much your efforts help me. I’m in a place where it’s a struggle daily to keep my mind occupied . . . I enjoy getting so deep into a book that when I look up I’ve been hours in another world, another time, another reality. It’s those times that keep me sane in a place where sanity is in short supply.
Kevin M., Beaumont, TX

Thank you for the dictionary I received. It has helped me a lot. It improved my vocabulary & literacy skills. It inspired personal growth & redemption as in learned & reading spiritual books with big words & vocabulary I didn’t know . . . it allowed me to use prison time more productive . . . it has made a positive change in my life.
Vincent R., Coleman, FL

I cannot begin to tell you just how much books have helped me through the past few years . . . Books are not just an educational tool but also a psychological tool providing an escape from the reality of prison life . . . there are many of us who don’t have family or friends able to order books for us. Thankfully there are amazing organizations like the “Prison Library Project” to help provide books to us . . .
Jonathan E., Beaumont, TX

How to Request a Book

Inmates may write to the Prison Library Project twice a year. Please make sure that you include your inmate ID number when requesting books. The PLP does not process requests made by a third party, inmates must write directly to contact the PLP.

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Prisoners & Addiction

Addiction is common for inmates in prisons. Statistics show that many inmates deal with substance abuse problems, but few actually receive treatment while they are incarcerated. However, addressing substance use disorders during this time and after their release lowers their risk for relapse.

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