It's freezing inside this small room in a Mid-City warehouse, and Lorie has her 7 month-old son Dom bundled in a cocoon of blankets inside of his stroller. Lorie, who asked that her last name not be used, has braved the cold on this last day in January to get something for her boyfriend, who is having a hard time getting reading material where he's now living — St. Charles Parish's Nelson Coleman Correctional Center.
Lorie's boyfriend needs books, and Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners (B2P), a grassroots, volunteer organization operating out of this warehouse, will try to ensure he gets them. With six members and a varying number of volunteers, B2P sends out about 50 packages per week, each with three to five books, to prisons located in Gulf Coast states.
Janick Lewis, a 24-year-old paramedic and a member of B2P, says this isn't how the group usually fills a prisoner's requests for reading materials, but he's happy to help. Shelves of books surround the room, and Lewis calls out titles to Lorie as he works his way around the collection of about 2,400 items, which are donated by individuals and libraries. Lorie's boyfriend is scheduled to be released in September, and she says he's interested in starting his own business.
"It's hard to get employed after you've been incarcerated," Lorie says. "So he wants to work for himself."
B2P is one of about 20 unaffiliated groups in the U.S. that performs this service. Through word of mouth and its Web site (www.lab2p.wordpress.com), prisoners and their families find out about the group, and every month, 200 to 300 inmate letters arrive, and there is currently a six-month backlog of inquiries. Money is tight, and occasionally members end up paying for the mailings, or the books aren't delivered. Each prison has a different policy for accepting packages, and sometimes books are refused. The state's only maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, hasn't been accepting B2P's books lately, so the group can no longer afford to send materials there.
Lewis says it can be frustrating at times, but he does feel in a small way, B2P is making a difference.
"If we can at least give them something to read, we can improve the conditions," Lewis says.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. — 865 per 100,000 people — and there are more than 19,500 inmates residing in the state's prison facilities. According to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, 80 percent of this population does not have a high school diploma, and the average reading level is slightly above the sixth grade. In 2003, 13,385 people were released from the state prison, but by 2008, 6,238 of this number had returned, for a recidivism rate of 46.6 percent.
Petrice Sams-Abiodun, executive director of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University, says Louisiana's literacy problem is extensive, and that putting books into prisoners' hands is a good strategy for improving reading skills.
"When we look at this we know there are direct correlations between literacy levels and crime," Sams-Abiodun says. "We know if people can't read well that there is a direct correlation to them not being able to get good jobs, and not having other opportunities."
With the afternoon sun fading and only a few bulbs lighting the unheated room, it's hard to see the titles, but a positive vibe pervades among the 20-something-old volunteers.
The group mails out a large number of dictionaries, thesauri, genre fiction like science fiction and horror, medical texts, math books and mechanical manuals. One side of the warehouse room is full of fiction, another side holds reference materials and a third side has a variety of nonfiction titles. The ancient Hindu holy scripture Bhagavad Gita sits next to Exodus II: Let My People Go, a book on Jewish history.
B2P's only real overhead is sending out the packages, which cost $3 to $5 depending on the weight. B2P shaves expenses by shipping only paperbacks. It doesn't use boxes, but instead recycles brown paper grocery bags, turning them inside out to wrap the books. Still, it amounts to $600 a month, and there is no steady stream of income.
The group holds fundraisers — last month AllWays Lounge, a bar in the Faubourg Marigny, hosted a benefit show, which raised $600 — and B2P sells hardcovers at the annual New Orleans Book Fair. Market Umbrella, the organization that operates the Crescent City Farmer's Market, contributes some money, and B2P says it's in the process of applying for federal 501(c) (3) nonprofit status in order to apply for grant funding.
B2P was originally founded in 2003, but after its members were scattered and relocated following the levee failures, the group reformed in 2006. There is no hierarchy in terms of leadership, but there are collective members, who have been active within B2P for a while and make decisions for the group. Recently, the collective members chose to narrow B2P's focus on the number of prisons it serves, and will no longer be mailing to correction facilities in Texas.
"There are so many prisons in Texas,"says James Clifford, a 28-year-old B2P collective member who joined the group in 2006 after moving here from Dayton, Ohio. "There are groups that send just to Texas." He adds that by eliminating Texas from their purview (they will send out final packages with a note of apology) they hope it will allow them to cut out some of the growing backlog of letters.
Like two other collective members — Elizabeth Lew and Andrew Salinas — Clifford works in a library. Salinas recently earned a master's degree in library science, and Lew and Clifford are both graduate library science students. Lew says B2P's mission falls in line with her beliefs as a librarian.
"It seemed like something I was concerned with: information equity," Lew says.
Historically, New Orleans has had lower literacy rates than the rest of the country. According to the federal government's National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 13.6 percent of U.S. adults lack basic prose literacy skills, but in New Orleans that figure is 18 percent.
Sams-Abiodun says the city's low literacy rates reflect deeper issues of poverty and the lack of access to high-quality education. It also has had an effect on the city's recovery, because employers are looking for workers who can read at least at a 10th grade level, and many applicants cannot.
"It's really been a challenge for the rebuilding and the revitalization of this region, especially for people who are trying to return and having such low literacy rates," Sams-Abiodun says.
Improving reading skills is an uphill battle because there is a lack of funding for adult literacy, and only 5 percent of those who need the assistance are enrolled in classes. With sufficient budgets, Sams-Abiodun says, prisons can be conducive for literacy classes.
"I hate to say it, it's a pun on it, but they have a captive audience," Sams-Abiodun says. "They have opportunities to do things that once prisoners are released, they won't do."
Following Gov. Jindal's 2009 executive order to reduce agency budgets, the Louisiana Department of Education announced its cuts in January, and adult education programs were slashed by 66 percent, leaving only $1.6 million. The Louisiana Department of Corrections' (DOC) state funding for adult programs was reduced from $144,000 to $49,000.
DOC's education director Kim Barnette says there is "an extremely limited budget" for programming — the department dedicates 1.3 percent of its budget toward rehabilitation — and there are 698 inmates on a waiting list to get into one of the 1,732 slots available at the 12 facilities. She's not sure why the packages from B2P aren't getting to the Angola prisoners.
Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden at Angola, says the prison has accepted books from B2P six times since the beginning of 2009, and "hasn't refused a package from this company." On one occasion they returned a B2P book because it was used, and Angola only accepts new books. All donations, Fontenot says, must be approved by her office.
"They must be confusing us with another group," Clifford says, pointing out that B2P almost exclusively deals in used books. "If they were willing to accept our used books with an extra level of screening, it would be a fantastic step in the right direction."
Baby Dom is coughing and sniffling, so Lorie decides to take him home. Lewis has pulled books for her boyfriend, and they will be mailed that week. He says packages from individuals won't get through the jails' screeners, but often they allow for mail from organizations. Before he wraps and labels the package, he searches the Internet to see if there are any restrictions on books at the St. Charles' Parish jail. He can't find any.
"We're just going to go ahead and try," Lewis says.
For more information about B2P, contact the group through its Web site www.lab2p.wordpress.com.