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)

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.

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A LIFELINE

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.