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Breaking the cycle through literacy

Since 2009, Rita's Place has donated more than 12,000 books to state prisons
by: Lisa K. Anderson,

As the executive director of Rita's Place, a Mount Hood-area nonprofit that assists families in need, Rebecca Loprinzi brought children to visit their incarcerated parents.

When many of these parents said they had come to the same visiting room as children to visit their parents, Loprinzi was alarmed.

'I thought, 'This has got to stop. This cannot continue,'' Loprinzi says. 'We have to halt this pattern of generation after generation becoming incarcerated.'

Three years ago, Rita's Place began a book drive to help educate inmates and keep them out of prison upon their release, with donations coming in from Mt. Hood Community College, Lewis and Clark College, Marylhurst College, Portland State University and Portland Community College, Friends of the Sandy Public Library and the general public.

Along with academic books and novels, Rita's Place tries to supply a collection of classics, poetry and children's books to offer a variety of literature and a way for incarcerated parents to connect with their children during visits.

Since the book donation program began in 2009, Rita's Place has donated more than 12,000 books to Oregon's prisons and is now extending its program to privately operated prisons.

Typically, Rita's Place delivers 12-15 boxes of books to prisons at a time, which include about 200 to 400 books.

Before they are distributed by Debbie Cornwell, a Rita's Place volunteer, the books are stored at Loprinzi's home, which also houses the nonprofit organization.

Cornwell and her husband, Dan, of CC and L Roofing Company, helped create a roofed donation site at Loprinzi's house for book storage.

Cornwell says delivering the books is one of the most gratifying volunteer experiences she's had, and she feels surprisingly comfortable visiting the prisons.

Though she doesn't directly interact with the inmates, Cornwell leaves with the feeling she's done something to change lives, and receives accolades from prison staff members.

Loprinzi deeply appreciates this commitment by Cornwell, too.

'These donations assist inmates to have an education, make better choices upon their release, decrease recidivism and halt generations of families becoming imprisoned,' Loprinzi says.

'We take education for granted, but many of these inmates don't know you can get grants for community college - that there are means for education and ways to gain skills for jobs. They resort to what their parents taught them, and if their parents didn't go to school, that's what they do.'

Inmates check out books from the prisons' libraries, which with the help of Rita's Place, now has much more updated offerings (many of the library books prior to 2009 were from the 1970s and '80s).

The books the prisons cannot process, such as those with spirals or art books with nude images, are donated to Sandy High School or passed along to community organizations such as Sandy Actors Theatre. Still, prisons receive the lion's share of these books.

'When I first started about four and a half years ago, we only had around 2,000 books,' Melissa Davison from the State Department of Corrections said in an email. 'We just hit our 10,000 mark. We really do appreciate them.'

Loprinzi says the prison officials are very grateful for the books, and she hears from them that the inmates often become inspired to take correspondence classes on subjects they never imagined they might be interested in.

'Why not give people another opportunity to be proud members of society and give them the skills to do that?' Loprinzi says. 'We hope we can empower inmates to become productive members of society and to make the prison environment a bit more peaceful and manageable.'

Things to know

Since 2009, Rita's Place, a nonprofit organization based 10 minutes east of Sandy on Highway 26, has donated more than 12,000 books to prisons. Extra books that cannot be given to the prisons are donated to the high school or community groups. For more information or to donate books, visit ritasplace.org, call 503-622-3025 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..