Thursday, November 26, 2009

On the Stump for Jails Service

A couple months ago, I spoke to a class of future librarians and library technicians. The topic was Jails: Human Warehouse or Human Community. My goal was to present library service as a way to celebrate the vital human community that exists inside each Jail. The community includes inmates, deputies and all the support staff of various programs. That inner community, of course, extends outward to the families and neighborhoods left behind and to which most inmates will return. Libraries acknowledge the interacting communities and serve the reader "where they are" at any given time. If they are sentenced to Jail, they have an even greater need for Community support in the form of Books and Magazines!

Warehouse vs. Community

The Warehouse model occurs whenever human groups trade in altruism for efficiency. If there is no curiosity or interest in the needs of others, a systematic selfishness takes over. "The System" is bound to exclude, isolate or judge what does not serve its end. Any person who interferes with the efficient, regulated flow of people and machines in this system is sidelined until he or she or it is back in "compliance." Community comes to be seen as a privilege earned and protected by rigid conventions, or, worse still, gates and guns.

Questionable or QUESTIONING individuals are targeted until they demonstrate their allegiance and compliance. Young people or people with addictive behaviors are put aside and criminalized, rather than heard and welcomed into the "Club" of "Functioning Adults." Why do "Functional, Efficient Societies" depend on Jails and Sheriffs to house their outcasts? Of course, some behaviors endanger and victimize others in the community, but the cycle of endangerment and victimization is not addressed by warehousing or punishment, but by impassioned engagement and CARE! Torture and Forced Labor are outlawed by constitutional amendments, but Detention and Storage accomplish the same ends: exclusion, isolation and judgment. For many, this corrective "Time Out" becomes long years of "Time In" custody.

People, unlike books, don't sit on a shelf in silence. They grow and change; they are capable of a thousand new thoughts and behaviors. The Sheriff's Department is known for its commitment to public safety, but their twin responsibility is less appreciated or well-known. They are charged to house, inform, educate and inspire the human beings who come into their care. The library is proud to serve this human community and intervene so people are not warehoused on our watch.

A couple weeks after my talk, I received an EXCELLENT DONATION from one of the students in the class! Comic books are wildly popular and serve to bridge low literacy with story, as well as satisfying artistic needs.

Joke's on Us!
Clinic deputies and nurses got a laugh at our expense today. Always eager to get our books into the proper hands, we figured "Pregnancy for Dummies" should go to the Ob-Gyn clinic. I asked the nurse if she would take it down to the pregnant inmates and she gave me a sideways look with a questioning, "Okay." She then glanced at the group of deputies, saying, "Don't start!" Everyone was laughing before the humor in the book's title hit me over the head. Dumb me, I thought it was a SCIENCE BOOK! :-) Guess I need to lower the dose of my "Sincerity" prescription.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Empowerment, Entertainment, Enlightenment,
never on backorder! delivered every time.

Here are a few scenes from the Jail (Fall 2009.)

An inmate expressed how much she missed her family after receiving a letter at mail call. Would a book of poems or a drama with a character struggling to find peace and respect help her with her homesickness?

A word list found in a library book included: "stressed, recognized, appreciate, assistance" and ended with "punish, advantage, promote, ignorant, conscience, frequently, stubborn, alter...." These random words say so much to us about a person's mind as he deals with being locked up--though they just showed up on a spelling/look-up list.

A man may practice touch point massage on himself to ease the pain of injuries received before he came to jail. The information packet helps him memorize where these massage points lie.

Questions of "Why am I here," are just as important as "Why am I in here?" Many inmates took the denser, more difficult spiritual quest books from the cart. One young person took the Dalai Lama's introduction to Buddhism and may find a new form of Enlightenment this month.

Deputies and inmates recount their favorite books and what they like about different characters. Ludlum's Bourne Series always ranks high on everyone's list, though some other Ludlum titles don't get such rave reviews. Same goes for Cussler and Wilbur Smith. Ah, the lure of fame makes every candle flickah!

A woman scores a copy of "Sail" by James Patterson, which is the only book by this author she hasn't read. How lucky that her desired book didn't wind up in another house that day. She'll have the entertainment she craves, even if all her books are finished before the next library visit.

The reading group formed of GED students is now supplied with personal copies of "The Once and Future King," by T. H. White. How cool it would be to metamorphose into Arthur's hawk and soar right out of that jail. (At least as Merlin proposed, shape-shifting to live as other animals and learn their secret powers. Will these students sense a new empowerment as they read of Arthur's exploits and blunders.

A fan of graphic novels walks in a trance into his housing unit, paging through two issues of Dark Angel, the adventures of a young swordsman from Japan. Another young man uses his choice of three items by grabbing three Marvel magazines.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recent Picks and Pans:

Service to a blind inmate has taught me a great deal about library collections: what appeals, what falls flat. It has also given me a renewed interest in individual needs. This inmate enjoyed Star Wars, Phantom Menace: Episode One on an Mp3 player and wanted the sequel. Some books from our Braille collection (Harry Potter series) were okay but not exactly right. He'd like them in audio. Thanks to the techies in Inmate Services, he can hear them on an MP3 player!!!

With a huge group to serve, individual preferences are often overlooked. We do find ways to keep individual picks in mind when we pack our books, load the book carts or do face to face service. We can often match a request for author, if not specific title.

In a public branch, a user can return again and again and develop a relationship with staff to gain exactly what they need or "more of the same."

Precise matching of material to user is very problematic in a jail setting. Yet, surprisingly, if we bring a wide enough variety of the best we have, the needs of individual inmates are often met.

A recent conversation with an inmate proved the importance of selecting meaningful material--not just the latest fad. This man had scored a copy of, "I'm Okay, You're Okay" from the book cart. He loved the book and it had sparked self-reflection on his part.

This simple yet profound interaction of between librarian and user, book and mind says a great deal about the importance of libraries in jails. Here is an inmate who is searching for wisdom and sees others as important as himself. He asked for many classics and just plain good stories, as well. He obviously cares about other people and may spread the sanity contained in, "I'm Okay, You're Okay," to others in his "house."

Every community of people trades stories, the jail is no exception and the library service plays a role in sparking the imagination of others. A young man in minimum has been taking children's stories we bring to the cart and embellishing on them with both drawings and his words and telling stories to his bunk mates--just like they were gathered around a camp fire.

We're in the business of art education, as well! As our team was restocking the book cart in Maximum Security, an inmate asked his cellie to show us some of his pencil portraits. He showed us a curvaceous fantasy woman and an excellent depiction of Michael Jackson. This was his way of expressing his need for Art books. Luckily some good material was donated and we delivered it today to his deputy: an excellent book on the art and sculpture of Florence and an exhibition book on Vermeer.

Were there any pans? One can assume the 3-book stacks tied up in old waist-bands to use as push-up blocks are NOT the pods' favorite books. I've been waiting for the right reader to latch onto the biography of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, but that person hasn't come along. I'm not sure if anyone is willing to be seen holding the hairy romance by C.J. Barry, Unearthed, Unraveled, Unleashed! but some inmate is sure to surprise me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gut Feeling

The quest to be righteous after doing "wrong" is not only the domain of the chaplain. It's how the wrong occurred in the first place that interests many inmates and motivates their reading requests. Social science, religion, philosophy, history and poetry fit the bill.

Several weeks ago, the library team gave the book, Fire in the Belly, to an inmate in Max. He asked for a similar book yesterday. It is an ongoing challenge to find ennobling books that match the pace and energy of the wild rides and thrillers we provide.

This book analyzes violence and love, a hot reading topic in jail. The struggle to learn self-restraint is incredibly hard in a free society, and this book doesn't offer an easy fix. There are a thousand methods to suppress behaviors and sublimate energies in order to conform to the norm, but few manifestos to stand up and stand out as individuals. After several years in this job, I wrote the following:

Jail: Whose violence
has been quelled,
yours against me
or my own gut feeling?

The fire in the gut (and the mind) should stay lit, especially behind bars. This reader reminded me of that fact.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Laughin' and Cryin' (Vocabulary Lessons)

Okay. I'm not street smart. My jail lingo is limited. I'm dumb enough to say "jaybird" instead of "jaycat." Not that the library staff needs to diss or label anyone as crazy! I don't need to throw this word around like deputies or inmates do. There are a thousand reasons to feel or be crazy, so it's good to know this word. Any one of us--dropped into a jail cell for 48 hours--would discover our inner jaycat, for sure!

Enough said. The felines never cease to surprise. One young man stood by the book cart and said he was on hiatus. I asked, "From where?" He said, "The Streets!" Funny guy, he added that he was "on sabbatical" in jail! I hope he has TENURE and they hold his high-paying professorship while he's in here!

Next stop: "Caucasian." Today a guy wanted help spelling the word. We consulted the diminutive dictionary sold in canteen. No go. The dictionary was designed for primary school. In our budgetary heyday, we brought American Century collegiate dictionaries. So this inmate and I did the old "sound-it-out" routine, separating syllables into "Cauc" and "asian."

Glad it wasn't "supercalifragilistickexpealidocious."

The team encountered another inmate. The deputy was reading one of our entertainment magz and asked the inmate if he liked Mary Poppins, he said, "Sure." After a some good-natured scoffing, the guy said, "I like the way she sings. [Julie Andrews.] Just because I look like this (pointing to shaved head and jail clothes,) doesn't mean I don't know things. I have a brain." Turns out he'd spent his whole childhood in juvenile detention centers or camps throughout the state, but that is where he lived. That's not his LIFE.

It was great to hear this young man's spirited defense of his mind. This is exactly why the Library opens its doors every day to people who are free or goes behind locked doors to those who are incarcerated! We can't bring in a Broadway musical, but we can offer him a ladder to paint his sky with stars.

Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 05, 2009

We belong here

Before there was history, there was presence.
Absence called forth fact. Proof of ownership,
evidence of love, even the sacred cover of
"identity" defend against the loss of all

I am.

Children teach us presence, but we
bind them to our histories, stifle them with
codes of conduct, vocabularies of regret.
Warriors, note that, when you aim at

a child.

Any enemy who appears in your sights
was here first as a child. Every man and woman
crawled on this planet face down
in the earth, licked it, loved it

long before

we called it "God's creation" or demeaned
it as some absent, empty space. We belong
here, all of us belong here. War is hatred for
our presence in this place.


Dan's response to reading The Wars by Timothy Findley.

The story is buoyed up by an ocean of regret and sadness--the ocean on which the protagonist sails to yet another Troy. Futility, error, cruelty, love. A very great book with fascinating, intermingled narratives.

"The Wars (1978), Findley's most successful novel, has been translated into numerous languages and was made into a film. The Wars uses the device of a story-within-a-story to illustrate how a personality transcends elemental forces even while being destroyed by them."

Review retrieved on June 5, 2009 from

Friday, May 29, 2009