A Library That Serves A Captive Audience

The Prison Library Project responds to hundreds of requests a week from inmates around the country, and beyond, seeking a little relief from the boredom through reading.

December 04, 2009|By Corina Knoll

Penned inside a stark world of concrete and steel, the messages are often congenial, the words soft.

“Greetings from the other side. I hope this letter finds you in good health, achieveing all your heart’s desire.”

“Looking at things from a positive outlook helps you see the beauty in life.”

“You all will always be in my prayers knowing that thy are truly servants of our God.”

The authors are inmates writing to the Prison Library Project, a program run by a Claremont nonprofit that provides reading materials free of charge to hard-core criminals.

Each week, the project receives hundreds of letters — some written in careful cursive or intricate calligraphy, others scrawled with confused grammar. Whether writing a couple of lonely lines on a scrap of paper or a discourse running several pages, someone is always asking for something good to read.

The project has been fulfilling that request since 1987, when Claremont resident Rick Moore took over a program begun by spiritual gurus Bo Lozoff and Ram Dass in Durham, N.C. Starting with used books stored in the closet of a friend’s yoga studio, Moore eventually established the Thoreau Bookshop, where he could house the project as well as operate a store to fund it. From that evolved the nonprofit Claremont Forum, of which the Prison Library Project is the nexus.

Publicized by word of mouth, the project receives inquiry letters from corrections facilities across the country, with a handful arriving from overseas.

Men tend to ask for westerns and anything by Louis L’Amour or Stephen King. Women lean toward romance novels.

Because inventory is limited, the volunteer staff often must root around for a comparable piece of literature. The program’s main purpose, however, is self-help. So the inmate who receives “Hondo” or “Misery” may also find that his package includes a philosophy text and parenting resource.

“We keep trying to bring people around to what’s going to serve them and the community at large,” said Moore, 58. “Nothing racy. Nothing political. Everything’s so polarized in the prison system. We don’t want to stir more controversy. We’re trying to get people to turn inward.”

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