by Andrew Alonzo | email@example.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.