Thursday, May 25, 2006

Common Ground behind bars

We are often asked for religious materials when we are out in the jail distributing books. The Chaplain usually fields most of these requests. Today, Vidya was asked for books on God and she quickly browsed the bookcart for the tell-tale orange dot denoting "Religion/Philosophy." She found a couple titles and handed what she found to the inmate. We only had material relating to Christianity and Buddhism today. The inmate looked them over and said, "I'm a Muslim," and Vidya apologized, (wondering if she should have asked him his religion beforehand.)

The inmate surprised her by saying, "It doesn't matter; these books point to the same God, anyway. I'll take 'em.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

1 in 136 U.S. Residents Behind Bars

WASHINGTON (AP) - Prisons and jails added more than 1,000 inmates each week for a year, putting almost 2.2 million people, or one in every 136 U.S. residents, behind bars by last summer. ....Of particular note was the gain of 33,539 inmates in jails, the largest increase since 1997, researcher Allen J. Beck said. That was a 4.7 percent growth rate, compared with a 1.6 percent increase in people held in state and federal prisons.

Prisons accounted for about two-thirds of all inmates, or 1.4 million, while the other third, nearly 750,000, were in local jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Beck, the bureau's chief of corrections statistics, said the increase in the number of people in the 3,365 local jails is due partly to their changing role. Jails often hold inmates for state or federal systems, as well as people who have yet to begin serving a sentence.

"The jail population is increasingly unconvicted," Beck said. "Judges are perhaps more reluctant to release people pretrial." (John Grisham donations WELCOME!) The report by the Justice Department agency found that 62 percent of people in jails have not been convicted, meaning many of them are awaiting trial.

Overall, 738 people were locked up for every 100,000 residents, ....Men were 10 times to 11 times more likely than women to be in prison or jail, but the number of women behind bars was growing at a faster rate, said Paige M. Harrison, the report's other author.

The racial makeup of inmates changed little in recent years, Beck said. In the 25-29 age group, an estimated 11.9 percent of black men were in prison or jails, compared with 3.9 percent of Hispanic males and 1.7 percent of white males.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, ... criticized sentencing guidelines, which he said remove judges' discretion, and said arrests for drug and parole violations swell prisons. "If we want to see the prison population reduced, we need a much more comprehensive approach to sentencing and drug policy," he said.

COMMENT from Jailslibrarian

Jail Librarians are like Wide Receivers, we go out for the passes that come our way. And the end zone keeps receding down the field, with the magic words "Fiscal Year!" It is a daily challenge to match a shrinking book budget with a 4.7 growth rate in jailed "patrons." This affects crowd control; the patience and workload of deputies (who give the yea or nay to our service,) AND the circulation of our precious paperpacks. How many hands really touch our books?

Some improvisations in our play book are the following: holiday handouts; comic books from the local 1/2 priced bookseller; poetry selections; inspirational bookmarks (our most popular one featured a poem by Assata Shakur,) & the perennial favorite, Gothic Lettering. (Yep, we are the source of innovation in the art of temporary tattoos. One Housing Unit asked us to stop bringing National Geographics because the inmates were dissolving the beautiful inks and applying it to their skin.) All these "extras" help inmates face the sensory deprivation of their living quarters; they complement our bins of paperbacks and magazines really well.

Feel free to post suggestions to help us continue what one member of our staff describes as a "Smoke and Mirrors" show!

Here's a snip from Assata's poem, "Leftovers, what is left?"
Assata, p. 146 (Lawrence Hill Books, 1987)

After the bars and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?
I mean, like, where is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow--
i am searching
What is left?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Mr. Librarian, remember me?

"Of course," I said to the aging inmate, "Mississippi!"

Two years ago, I was setting up our bookcart to serve the 300 men in a Minimum security house and he was on the work detail to clean floors and distribute food. Since the workers in a house are usually out when we arrive and on the good side of the deputies, they get first dibs on our library books. M. always held back and let others pick books first. That day, however, I really scored when I handed him a "True Crime" book about murders in Mississippi. I guess he'll never forget me, though I hope my notoriety wasn't gained for promoting True Crime!

Why distribute True Crime books to criminals, you ask? Incarcerated folks have the keenest sense of justice of any people I've met, with the possible exception of my older sister during a board game. Like the vast TV audience of shows like Cops, these inmates want to see punishment meted out for crimes worse than ones they have committed. Secondly, most inmates who've done time in the State Penitentiary have had to stay out of the way of serious criminals at one time or another so they are VERY interested in learning about the minds of people who make it into an Ann Rule book.

Back to my pal, Mississippi. I had seen him all over the jail during the past five years and was not thrilled today to see him chilling in Maximum Security. He seemed more suited to "the other side," where the crimes were less severe and the population more likely to be released. M. sat at the metal tables watching us distribute books to the men of his house--190 brawny or scrawny men, vying for one of the payphones or trading the books and magazines we'd just delivered. He said wearily that his work felt a lot like babysitting, which was an accurate assessment, considering the age difference between him and the large number of twenty-year olds locked up there. The energy in the cell block was palpable. Mississippi could have been tired from rising at 4 a.m.; but there is a more profound reason he may have felt worn out.

How many inmates face exhaustion from life, itself; from disappointment, from the depression that comes from aging behind a 12-foot fence, strung with wire? How does our library service help a tired pod-worker "keep his hand on the plough," moving forward. I think we select books and keep returning for a very simple reason. "We are all one spirit, we are all one name." This is how Peter Yarrow told the story in his song, River of Jordan (1972):

I traveled the banks of the River of Jordan
To find where it flows to the sea.
I looked in the eyes of the cold and the hungry
And I saw I was looking at me.
I wanted to know if life had a purpose
And what it all means in the end.
In the silence I listened to voices inside me
And they told me again and again. 

The is only one river. There is only one sea.
And it flows through you, and it flows through me.
There is only one people. We are one and the same.
We are all one spirit. We are all one name.
We are the father, mother, daughter and son.
From the dawn of creation, we are one.
We are one. 

Every blade of grass on the mountain
Every drop in the sea
Every cry of a newborn baby
Every prayer to be free
Every hope at the end of a rainbow
Every song ever sung
Is a part of the family of woman and man
And that means everyone. 

We are only one river. We are only one sea.
And it flows through you, and it flows through me.
We are only one people. We are one and the same.
We are all one spirit. We are all one name.
We are the father, mother, daughter and son
From the dawn of creation, we are one.
We are one.

Nope, I'll never forget Mississippi.

Friday, May 05, 2006

..."Parting is such sweet sorrow".

One of our own here at the Inside is leaving us for a new job. The Inside is not going away. Others will be taking up the writing assignments and posting news about our Jail experiences. Last days can be stressful for all concerned as saying goodbye is never easy or simple and change always involves loss and uncertainty. But those waiting for books at the jail must be served and continually tell us how very much appreciated we are. Jails service is one of the purest forms of library service today and we are privileged to serve.

Upcoming feature plans include a wish list of paperbacks and magazines.