The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

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Every day, for the almost two years I worked as a staff librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, the pattern was the same: Seconds after they were released from their units, inmates would not walk, they would run — as though catapulted — towards the prison’s library. Many inmates, especially those in a hurry, arrived with some specific order of business. They would grab a book of case law, or they’d check out a newspaper or magazine and take a seat at the library’s long table. They might disappear into the labyrinth of bookshelves. Many would line up to speak with me. They’d pose legal questions, talk about their families and health concerns, describe their spiritual and educational quests. Time and resources were short, and the needs were urgent. The library was a site of activity, of perpetual motion. In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them. The concept of books in prison has been contentious since at least the 19th century, when prison chronicler Enoch Cobb Wines wrote that some government officials considered prison libraries to be “of doubtful influence.”

more from Avi Steinberg at the Boston Globe here.

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