The Prison Library Project at the Claremont Forum: Affordable, sustainable, charitable

Student checks out book from the bookshop
The Claremont Forum bookshop | (Kimberly Murillo • The Student Life)

A short 20-minute walk from Pomona College, nestled in the Claremont Village Packing House, the Claremont Forum bookshop is Claremont’s only independent used bookstore, offering an affordable way for visitors to expand their book collections while supporting the Prison Library Project (PLP). One of the nation’s largest books-to-prisoners organizations, the PLP sends thousands of books and educational materials to inmates each month, free of charge, across the country.

A portion of proceeds from the Claremont Forum, which consists of the Forum bookshop and the Farmers and Artisans Market, goes toward the PLP. Books are donated by local community members and then sold by The Forum for $1 to $3.

Sergio Perez, director of the PLP, described the PLP’s primary goal of supporting and empowering incarcerated people through literature.

“Most inmates are in some kind of educational program or facility and are trying to better themselves so we’re more than happy to help them in regards to that,” Perez said.

Incarcerated people discover the PLP through word of mouth and then send letters to the PLP requesting certain materials. The Forum bookshop hosts ‘volunteer days,’ where volunteers read inmates’ letters and select books from the bookshop shelves to match the prisoners’ requests. The PLP receives 300 to 400 letters weekly from prisoners across the country.

“We at the Forum believe that no matter who you are, you have the right to reading and literacy and the hope for a second chance,” Mckenna Deluca, an employee at the Claremont Forum, said via email.

Dictionaries are the most frequent request, but GED preparation books, the Bible and Spanish-English dictionaries are also common requests.

The PLP is largely volunteer-run, including its board of directors, aside from a few people on staff to manage the Forum. Perez estimates that 70 percent of staff are volunteers.

Perez reflected on the issues of the carceral system at large.

“I’m very grateful for the city, the colleges and all the surrounding areas that really put us on a level where we can help a lot of incarcerated people more so than any other nonprofits,” Perez said.

“I’ll go as far as saying that the prisons don’t care about their prisoners,” Perez said. “Sometimes I’ll take weeks to just get a reply back to an email [concerning prison regulation]. We’ve noticed how if we call and bother [prisons] and bug them enough, they will take some kind of action.”

Perez noted some institutional obstacles that hinder their mission.

“There are states that make that goal a little difficult for us. Every state, every prison has their own rules,” Perez said. “We do get quite a bit of returns because of their rejections and sometimes they don’t even tell us the reason why they reject certain materials.”

The PLP was recently granted a monetary award from U.S. House Rep. Judy Chu D-Ca., whose district includes Claremont. Perez said the PLP hopes to work with Chu to “standardize everything” so state prisons are more like federal ones, having “the same kind of rules and regulations.”

The PLP seeks to combat cultural blind spots and ignorance toward incarcerated people.

“I think people can be blind to the challenges that incarcerated people face trying to better themselves, especially in this area and chalk up all prisoners as ‘bad people,’” Deluca said. “It is the easy response and easier even to dehumanize these individuals, something we see a lot in the world today.

Deluca shared how 5C students can engage with the PLP’s mission beyond monetary support.

“[Students] can pay attention to the horrendous book bans and ludicrous statutes being implemented in prisons nationwide that make it nearly impossible for us to get books into prisoners’ hands,” Deluca said. “The more eyes on these issues, the less likely it will be that legitimate breaches of civil rights are made and the more we and others will be able to help end the cycles of recidivism.”

Mason Napach CM ’27 frequents the Forum bookshop to discover new books and support the PLP.

“As an avid reader,” Napach said, “I feel like I can fulfill my book-buying guilty pleasure on a college student’s budget. It’s even better that my money is going to a wonderful cause.”

Perez appreciated the sense of community fostered through years of patronage at the Claremont Village.

“I’m very grateful for the city, the colleges and all the surrounding areas that really put us on a level where we can help a lot of incarcerated people more so than any other nonprofits,” Perez said.

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