by Andrew Alonzo | [email protected]
The Claremont Forum library receives more than 300 letters a week from inmates across the country requesting books from the donation-based nonprofit, according to data recently compiled by Forum board member Rachel McDonnell.
The non-profit organization is home to the Prison Library Project, which provides incarcerated adults with books.
“You write us a letter. They will say my name is so and so and I am looking for this and that book. They give us a list of genres and once we have that list, we search our shelves, see what we have, and then send that book and fulfill that request,” Mendez added.
As a local and used bookstore, the Forum receives book donations from throughout Claremont, including residents, Claremont Colleges and the Helen Renwick Library, as well as from throughout California and across the country.
First conceived by Ram Dass and Bo Lozoff in Durham, North Carolina in 1973, the Prison Library Project moved to Claremont in 1986 and is one of the largest books-to-prisoner projects in the country. Each month, the Prison Library Project makes nearly 850 books available to inmates at over 300 prisons in 42 states. In 2019, the project was able to send over 10,000 books to prisoners.
“We’re not a traditional bookstore. We’re a non-profit organization and our cause and mission is the Prison Library Project,” Mendez said. “All proceeds from the Claremont Forum Bookstore help fund the Prison Library Project.”
But why send books to inmates when their facilities are likely to have libraries? According to Mendez, many inmates do not 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 fourth-grade inmates cannot read.
“We tend to send books to help inmates educate themselves and learn to read and write,” Mendez said. “In the long run, we hope they get something out of it. That it prevents them from committing another crime or going back to prison.”
“We just want to make the world a better place if we can, even if it’s on a small level,” Mendez added. “People will say, ‘Oh, they’re just sending books…’ If one of those 2,500,000 inmates is influenced by a book and they can improve or develop their life…have a better life than they did before they were incarcerated…we’re winning in this one.” respect [and] this is a win for them. That’s why we do it.”
Mendez said the project typically mails textbooks such as dictionaries, thesauri, Spanish-English vocabulary builders, foreign language and general education development (GED) books to inmates. Inmates also request children’s books and popular novels.
But some variables, such as limited manpower, high shipping costs, and a limited budget, prevent the project from responding to all incoming letters. According to Mendez and Forum data compiled between 2019 and 2021, the project can only process between 54 and 59 percent of incoming letters.
Mendez said if they responded to all the letters they received each month, it would cost the project about $2,000 to cover postage, funds the nonprofit simply doesn’t have.
“Each book costs about three dollars [to ship]but some of them will cost close to four or five dollars, depending on how dense the book is, and it adds up,” Mendez said.
That year, the Prison Library Project decided to start the Spring Postage Campaign, a fundraiser trying to raise over $6,000 to help cover the cost of shipping books to inmates for the next several months. According to Mendez, the goal, if achieved, will help the project respond to nearly all of its current requests.
The campaign has already raised over $2,400 towards its goal as of Wednesday, and the promotion ends on May 31st.
Residents can donate to the spring postage campaign online at claremontforum.org/event/spring-postage-drive. For other ways to donate, contact the forum at (909) 626-3066.
In addition to seeking monetary donations, the Prison Library Project also has an Amazon wish list of highlighters, rubber bands, packing tape, and shipping labels to wrap and ship requested books.
Residents can also donate their personal time by helping to wrap the books for shipping.
Used books can be dropped off at the Claremont Forum Bookstore, 586 W. First Street in the Packing House between 12pm and 7pm Sunday through Thursday and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday.
“The books you donate here really make a difference. These books are sent to prisons and inmates who are beyond grateful that we can send them a book like this,” Mendez said.