The message itself was simple: "I was so alone and then I got your package," it read. "Thank you so much. I love the books. Thank you and God bless." Yet there was something about the handwriting, a delicate and elegant script, that moved Megan Bernard to fold the note up and put it in her wallet, where she keeps it still. "It was just so human, so personal, that it really resonated with me," said Bernard, a volunteer with Chicago Books to Women in Prison. "It's a very grounding reminder that even if you can't overhaul the prison system, you can at least reach back to someone who is reaching out to you." For 11 years, the group has been reaching out to incarcerated women with the gift of literature and human connection, reassuring those on the inside that they're not forgotten and reminding those on the outside not to forget.
While there are several projects that send books to prisons generally, this is one of only two in the country that cater specifically to female inmates and to transgender women in male prisons, who sometimes have unique requests.
"They don't stock as many romance novels," Bernard said of the groups that cater to the general prison population.
The 103,674 women serving sentences of at least a year in state and federal correctional facilities in the U.S. at the end of 2011 represented about 6.7 percent of the total prison population, according to the most recent published count from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Two-thirds of women prisoners were there for nonviolent offenses.
WHAT WOMEN WANT
"I see a lot of Danielle Steele going out today!" announced Betsy Nore, a volunteer, as she wrapped books in brown paper cut from grocery store shopping bags. "That's good, because we have a lot."
It was a Sunday afternoon in a cramped Lakeview storefront where group members meet weekly to fulfill prisoners' book requests. Fifteen volunteers were climbing over each other to comb through the constantly rotating stock of about 2,000 donated books piled up on shelves, tables and the floor, in hopes of finding what the women want.
It is a true shoestring operation: Staffed only by volunteers, with no hierarchical structure or leader to speak of, the group has a $15,000 annual budget fed by grants and individual donations, most of which goes to postage, said Bernard, who in her day job is assistant director for the honors program at Roosevelt University.
The group has no formal relationship with the prisons; it communicates directly with the inmates through letters and book request forms. Knowledge of the service, of no cost to the prisoners, spreads through word of mouth.
The group receives an average of 70 letters weekly from prisoners in nine states — Illinois, California, Florida, Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut, Mississippi and Indiana — and is about three months behind in fulfilling the requests. A file drawer is crammed with 200 letters waiting to be opened. Sometimes a dozen request forms are tucked in the same envelope, which saves the inmates money on stamps.
No matter how many she requests, each inmate gets a package containing three books. The group sends nearly 3,000 packages a year.
Reading the book requests provides a glimpse of the diverse interests among the women behind bars.
One inmate asked for a Highland/Scottish romance novel, Danielle Steele and David Kherdian's poetry collection "Letters to My Father."
Another wanted Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games," "The Amityville Horror" by Jay Anson and Maya Angelou's "The Heart of a Woman."
One request form wished for Ann Rule's true crime novel "Green River, Running Red" and Anne Sexton's "The Complete Poems" — or, if those weren't available, some nonfiction books about the Holocaust.
Another asked for books on any of the following topics: "Herbs, alternative power sources, natural healing, quilting, crocheting, hydroponic gardening, native American herbs for healing, going 'green,' ways to live off the 'grid,' cookbooks, how to build cabins or small houses, any how-to books."
"Some are notably about their life outside of prison when they get out," said Jo Pear-Haas, a substitute teacher who has been volunteering with the group since 2009. "They are enhancing the quality of their life while in prison, but also thinking ahead to improve future prospects."
Darlene Lopez, a Roosevelt University student volunteering for the first time, was perusing the shelves for an inmate who wanted an NIV (New International Version) Bible "with Christ's words in red, leather if possible," a 2013 calendar, and "Italian for Dummies."
By far the most popular request, the volunteers say, is a dictionary. The second most popular: a blank journal.
The latter can present a problem. The volunteers have noticed that some prisons return packages containing journals, and they think it's because they want the inmates to buy journals from the prison commissaries.
To get around it, Bernard often sends people who request journals books of poetry instead and writes a note encouraging them to journal in the large margins. She got the idea from Kurt Vonnegut's "Hocus Pocus," in which the protagonist, imprisoned in a library, writes his memoir on any blank scrap he can find.
Chicago Books to Women in Prison was founded in 2002 as a feminist project by a group of bookworms, archivists and activists who objected to the penal system and wanted to encourage prisoner solidarity, said Arline Welty, one of the four co-founders, who was a student at the University of Chicago at the time. They operated out of a room in the Haymarket Co-op.
The group started by sending boxes of books to prison libraries, which often are stocked with law books but not much else (states are constitutionally required to assist inmates in accessing the courts to redress their grievances). But they discovered the libraries were too understaffed to ever shelve the books, so they would sit there unused.
In hopes of learning a better model for their cause, the Chicagoans visited the Women's Prison Book Project in Minneapolis, founded in 1994, which at the time was the only group sending books specifically to female inmates. The two groups split up the states.
Heidi Heise, a volunteer with the Women's Prison Book Project, said she got involved because activism had left her feeling empty and sending books to individuals had tangible results.
"The main overall message we get is that it makes women who are incarcerated feel that there's actually someone out there who cares," Heise said. "We don't have any personal connection with them, but just getting a package is an amazing thing."
Receiving books from the project was a lifeline for many inmates who didn't have visitors or anyone on the outside to help them, said Sara Olson, who was incarcerated in Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, Calif., from 2002 to 2009. It was also an opportunity: Many women hadn't finished 8th grade, Olson said, and prison finally gave them time to learn to read and write.
Books also were valuable because they were a crucial way to pass the time and they were hard to get and hold onto, Olson said. Library privileges were hard to come by. Prison rules allowed only 10 books on a prisoner's property list at one time, and if guards found one not on the list, it was taken away, she said.
"For a lot of people, it was the first time they realized the importance of books," said Olson, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., and volunteers with the Women's Prison Book Project.
"Reading is an important part of an inmate's overall well-being by helping reduce recidivism and supporting their personal development," said Christine Boyd, administrator for the Illinois Department of Corrections' Office of Adult Education and Vocational Services, which supervises the prison libraries, in an email. Reading also provides a sense of relaxation and serves to educate, she added.
Unfortunately, the books the women want aren't always available in the group's inventory. The group is chronically short on substance abuse recovery resources and urban street fiction. One volunteer who came across a book about living with hepatitis C held it up as if she had found the holy grail. And yet 50 donated copies of "Eat, Pray, Love" will sit on shelves untouched.
"We are getting from one population and serving another," Bernard said.
Prisons accept only paperback books for inmates, so the project is always in need of paperback Bibles and dictionaries. It sells its hardcover donations and other books it can't use to Half Price Books or trades with Powell's for books they do need.
One challenge is finding books for readers who are considered functionally illiterate. The volunteers send them children's books with more sophisticated plots.
Another challenge is navigating the tight quarters and semi-organized piles in the group's space to see what books are actually there. The group used to have more spacious digs in Rogers Park and then Ravenswood, when it was affiliated with Beyondmedia Education, but financial troubles forced it to scramble for a new home and it ended up renting its current 650-square-foot Lakeview storefront from Chicago Women's Health Center for $75 monthly.
"We used to keep our books in boxes stacked in a bathtub, so this is not the worst it has been," Bernard noted. The group plans to move to a bigger space, with twice as much shelving, when the Women's Health Center opens new facilities in Uptown in the coming months.
Scott Felgenhauer, a volunteer for a year, was scanning the shelves for an inmate who had requested a journal, an urban novel and a book to interpret dreams.
"That's hard," he said of the dream book. "As soon as we get them in, they're gone." He selected two urban books instead and wrote her a note suggesting she try again for the dream book another time.
Sometimes, Felgenhauer said, he'll make an extra effort to find the book an inmate wants, like when he went to Myopic Books in Wicker Park and got an inmate an Italian dictionary for $3.
"Every time I've needed a break, someone has given it to me," he said.
Felgenhauer started volunteering at the project as part of community service for a drunken driving charge. He was required to volunteer for only six months, but stayed on because he was saddened by the three-month backlog.
Felgenauer, who served time in his youth, empathizes with the inmates, some of whom express great loneliness. A few weeks ago he got a letter from an inmate saying it was her birthday, and she didn't have any family, and all she wanted was a birthday card. He sent her a card, along with a journal, a Bible and a dictionary, and wrote her a note confiding that he had been incarcerated once and advising her, "Make the best of your time."
The thank-you notes that flow in leave no doubt about the inmates' gratitude.
An inmate named Melissa, who puts stars at the base of her exclamation points, said she appreciated the sci-fi books she had been sent and included four drawings she had made of fantasy characters. She said she had been in prison seven years, and "you are my only book senders."
Volunteer Carol Yee, who arrived that Sunday with 30 boxes of books after doing a book drive for the project through Facebook, opened a letter from a Florida inmate who was effusive in her praise of the group and hoping for help once again.
The inmate wished for a Scrabble dictionary, a mystery or suspense novel by Sidney Sheldon, and one book that had been eluding her for years: "I've read every Janet Evanovich book, 1-19 in the series," she wrote, "but cannot find #8 ('Hard Eight') for some reason."
Yee scanned the mystery shelves for Evanovich — the series stars a lingerie-buyer-turned-bounty-hunter — to no avail. Then a visitor spotted, sitting on a table in a pile that had not yet been shelved, the bright green copy of "Hard Eight." Yee gasped with joy.
"How awesome is that," she said, holding the book to her chest. "We just rocked her world."
Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.