Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Prison Library Project

We are an incarceration society, so I've recently heard.

In April of 2008, The New York Times published a world map of comparative incarceration statistics. The larger the circle on the diagram, the larger the number of inmates that country has per 100,000 inhabitants. The US circle is the biggest on that world map, with 751 incarcerations per 100,000; Russia is second with 627. Our neighbors - Mexico and Canada - fall well below our 700-plus with 198 and 108 incarcerations per 100,000 respectively. Shockingly, the US Department of Justice claims that one in ever 131 US residents (regardless of conviction status) is being held in a US prison or jail.

Initiatives like Proposition 6 and 'Education not Incarceration' bring to light the very complicated relationship our society has with crime, arrest, conviction, race, incarceration and equity. Proposition 6 would have shifted state funds away from schools, human services, and housing and towards criminal justice programs - in other words, treating the terminal disease after it has taken root rather than investing in wellness, prevention, and health.

According to the Education not Incarceration website, the following facts illuminate some trends of spending that seem to emphasize our national draw towards punishment and retribution over prevention:

High school dropouts are more than three times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested in their lifetime. (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2003)

During the last two decades of the millennium, corrections’ share of all state and local spending grew by 104%, while higher education’s share of all state and local spending dropped by 21%. (From "Cellblocks or Classrooms” Justice Policy Institute, 2003)

Nearly 80 percent of individuals in prison do not have a high school diploma. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1995)

Though none of these facts even begin to prove any kind of cause and effect relationship, nor do they do more than scratch the surface of the root causes of crime at large (or non-crime, for that matter), there seems to be little question that sustained education increases opportunities which may then provide alternatives to a criminal form of life sustenance.

What we do know is that 2,310,984 people are incarcerated in the US today, and that we would prefer they leave the prison system, if at all possible, with optimism rather than anger.

I came across The Prison Library Project on my first trip to Claremont, a town on the far, far eastern edge of Los Angeles County (home, by the way, of the amazing Three Forks restaurant, currently under post-fire renovation). According to their flyer, The Prison Library Project was founded in Durham, North Carolina in 1973 and relocated to Claremont in 1986. The PLP is part of the Claremont Forum, "a non-profit organization whose mission is to enrich lives through education, arts, and wellness programs."

Each week, PLP receives close to 300 letters from inmates requesting books. In return, they mail or deliver nearly 30,000 books, magazines, and audiotapes each year to individuals and libraries across 600 prisons nationwide. They are particularly interested in books on growth and development, but also deliver books of poetry, literature, and fiction. They do not take crime, murder mysteries, or romance novels.

There is a large, unmet need for dictionaries in particular. For our cause this week, there are three easy ways to help PLP do their work:

Donate books:

1. Bring books to me (home, Otis, or UCLA - leave a comment if you need the address or locations) and I'll get them to The Thoreau Bookstore, home of the Claremont Forum and the nationwide Prison Library Project.

2. Mail books to or drop books off at the PLP directly, in care of :
The Claremont Forum
586 West 1st Street
Claremont, CA 91711

3. Next time you are on Amazon, go to their wish list and add a dictionary or other book to be sent to the Claremont Forum.

New dictionaries cost as little as $6.50, used ones as little as $3 plus shipping. Most of you are avid readers if not intellectuals by profession. This small gesture, in our book-obsessed lives, is a way to help spread the idea that language, the perfect sentence, and the beautiful word really can be keys to a better life.

The Claremont Forum also accepts donations (just $2.50 sends two books to an inmate) and always needs volunteers to read letters and pack books. Go to their website for more information on ways to get involved or to learn more about the PLP. They can also be reached via email: or phone 909-626-3066. If you find yourself in Claremont, you can shop at The Thoreau Bookstore. Proceeds go to the PLP. It's directly across from the Claremont Art Museum in the restored Claremont Packing House.

A big thank you to Mike Manville - the first donor who, while cleaning out his office, came across a dictionary and thesaurus that will make their way to Claremont, and then off into the system via The Prison Library Project.

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