UIC student Joanie Noble of Franklin Park picks out books at Chicago Books to Women in Prison

UIC student Joanie Noble of Franklin Park picks out books at Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a all-volunteer organization that respond to letters from incarcerated women requesting particular books and and try to find three that best fit the request from the shelves of donated books in Chicago, Sunday, March 10, 2013. (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / March 9, 2013)

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.


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"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.

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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."