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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Our Great Books Program.

(Mortimer Adler fans, beware.)

The Jails Team had a "great books" moment during yesterday's service. It's when we look up toward the sky (or cement ceiling) and close our eyes, amazed by the lollapalooza in front of us. You might see a simple book cart! It might seem like "slim pickins'" compared to a public library, but there is always something "impressive" about the combination of books that wind up on our shelves or are requested by our readers.

A young man asks for Tom Sawyer. His cellmate reads Russian, and turns in Romeo and Juliet, saying it was too difficult. Can we find some Shakespeare in Russian? Another sweeps up all the Jackie Collins he can find. A person wants some fiction about the street and we find a copy of Black Girl Lost. It takes some convincing that Donald Goines will substitute for Iceberg Slim.

Another man is intrigued by a book on the philosophical backgrounds of Black Identity. A person holds Brave New World and wants to know how it compares to Orwell's 1984. Janet Evanovich has several people exclaiming how fun she is to read. Someone chides us for not bringing Stephen Cannell, and says he's been asking and asking. He has very specific tastes and is always trying out new authors, but can never get enough from the "first-come/first-serve" method which obtains at the book cart.

A bilingual reader kneels at the cart with Burro Genio, by Victor Villasenor, in his hands. Then he comes around to my side and quietly asks asks what the Aeneid is about. The little parrot on my shoulder wants to say, "This is a central text to Western Civilization." Is that any kind of recommendation? What IS the book about? It's a great story of honor and loyalty. It's a character-study like a novel but written in beautiful poetry. It's a fantasy of historical and spiritual conflict. I say some mish-mash of the above, nothing to do justice to this poem. Luckily, he decides to take it and give it a try.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hot to the Touch!

Newark Library ...

has just made our magazine shelves sizzle with a great donation. It's true, the covers may soon be plastered to jail cell walls, (with the possible exception of the Buddha,) but that beats lying face down in your recycling bin!

Our local 1/2 Price book store also keeps us in the good graces of comic book fans at the jail. Check this out:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cardboard Box Art! 

In the land of latex, creativity comes in surprising forms. The Jails Team found this box during a book delivery. Someone who likes high-speed driving and sports cars tagged this box with some cool designs. 
Service without Guile

Service without guile is as important as service with a smile. "Skillful deceit," as Webster defines it, finds its way into the work-place in a dazzling array of behaviors, some of them functional and some dysfunctional.

This post won't bother separating the useful from the obstructive, the "good" from the "bad." (Guile often seems beneficial on the surface. Efficiency often improves when the restless workers are in conflict with each other, vying for approval and respect within the hierarchy. Colonial power structures maintained control that way and flowered into vast bureaucracies where guile took the place of labor.) Any institution can become this way, where we end up workin' for the man, rather than workin' as the man. The work of pleasing and performing is not the work, itself. Why is dishonest behavior needed in the work-place at all. Who needs it?

Library Patrons do not benefit from guile; they genuinely seek honest, open smiles from employees who offer friendly directions or guidance through the library environment. 

If staff goes outside the library to provide service (as it does to our incarcerated patrons at the jail,) deceptive charm and the judgmental agenda are noticeable a mile away. We are not judge or jury. The inmates "time" was assigned by others. We may want to help, but we are not on a rehabilitative task force. Our job is to create library-patron relationships with our user group, a neutrality promoted by ALA members who serve Special Populations. For incarcerated readers--like anyone else--true help is welcome, while the sharp-toned agents of Self-Improvement are viewed with suspicion.

A few months ago, some guys asked our team if we were missionaries! Was it the starched white shirts and black neckties? 

Say we're just stressed out and feelin' stingy. Even the brittle, stressed-out minds of people bound by a code of conduct (which usually includes high expectations of others,) can disrupt service and antagonize patrons. Library users in jail have heightened sensitivity to punitive attitudes and know when rules are motivated by fair-play or enforced by false pride. The latter generates resistance all around.

The Jails Team must periodically assess their own behaviors and feelings to see if their service is punitive and constrained (to please hidden agenda) or generous and responsive to what the users want. Effective management recognizes guile and does not reward it or foster the confusion by saying, "Change is Good." Effective leaders help troubled teams step forward to honest self-appraisal and authentic adaptation to what is real.
Spring has Sprung 

The grass never grows under our bookcarts.

Here is a typical spread of "Returns" from a day at the Jail. Three houses or cell blocks receive and return books on a given day. 5 carts stuffed top to bottom with paperbacks prove how important it is to have support staff in place "back at the ranch." All people involved are fairly flexible and pitch in to help each other.

Once the books are unloaded, organized on carts and reshelved, the team immediately begins to select and pack books for the next visit. This ebb and flow from the collection (with intensive weeding every time) is routine. Large depletions result in empty shelves, then suddenly we need overflow carts because the shelves are full. 

Both inmates and deputies help us keep the books in motion. Some podworkers even separate damaged paperbacks from those in good condition, making it easier to deal with copious returns. 

We all find ways to keep the springs in working order. 

Monday, April 06, 2009

Send Poems...

about I miss you & I love you.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Gold Country

Never underestimate the value of a used bookstore near the library. Our local Half Price Books has been the motherlode for paperback prospectors on the Jails Staff. 

The great thing about this source is the minds behind the boxes. Store staff is well-trained to spot books of value or interest for the store. After many years of ringing up our purchases, the staff has developed expertise about our collection and is able to select appropriate donations. 

Worth their Weight in....

Such expeditions are worthwhile, as you see from the pictures above. The boxes filled our van to capacity. We now have a rich vein to mine when the gold disappears from shelves inside "The Fort." (These days, our paperback supply is more stable than gold in the U.S. Treasury.)

Storage Area

Our shelf space is limited so we need outside storage. (Let's call this "offshore" area, Dubai, though we're not raking in untaxed billions by keeping our books outdoors!) Paperbacks get damaged if they bake too long under a hot California sun.

Jails Only

Of course, a little sign is required to distinguish our storage area from the general donation area. Ten-ton deposits of musty "Condensed Books" or slick computer manuals don't match our "user needs."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

High output librarians, low input funding!

You have to laugh, so as not to weep and wail. 

The jails library service runs on a shoestring, due to incredible public participation via donation and student volunteers who help us process the books. It also has a fairly reliable funding source: the surcharge on commissary items at the jail. As long as people are sentenced to jail, buy items from commissary while they're incarcerated and demand access to books, we're in business. That means the library can pay for some hot new books and the staff to buy, pack, deliver and retrieve them after they are read.

But what about other kinds of library programs? One of the jails team is a grad student in library school and gets to hear the latest buzz from students around the state of California. Funding puddles are drying up. For some reason, libraries are never irrigated in the proper way. They are not guaranteed a flow from the source high in our intellectual mountains. Why is such scarcity the prevailing model in such an incredibly diverse mental landscape? Why does California not commit itself to economic and intellectual growth!

In a posting to a fellow library school student, I wrote:

May the funding roll in!! Part of recovering from the Pete Wilson cutbacks in 1993 was to adopt an "abundance" over "scarcity" philosophy. If citizens start to feel surrounded by riches--not expensive luxuries--but beautiful necessities, the economy will improve. The stingy people will move back into the background where they always live, profiting from doom and gloom. Let the generous, transformative people (like Eleanor Roosevelt)...
           take charge.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Life is good in Jail when...

a Deputy convinces an inmate to read Kurt Vonnegut;

some pod workers tell the librarian she's "a bright light" when she arrives with the new books;

a citizen of the county shares his life-time collection of National Geographics (in mo/yr order!) for inmates who love 'em;

British "Bad Girl" actress, Debra Stephenson, does time at our facility for a documentary on incarceration and donates books to the real inmates she had to leave behind;

American stars shine just as brightly when Jada Pinkett Smith sends a donation of magazines!

Life is good when the right book gets into the right person's hands.

Monday, February 09, 2009

This calls for...

Steve and Alice did it again -- filled up our loading dock with bags of marvel-ocious books. So many bags of riches appeared, we called in Hercules -- our Marvel Mystic Superhero -- to sort 'em all out. 

Steve and Alice, both respectable titans of the library world, have helped the Jails Service in countless ways. 

Steve is our bookmobile librarian who regularly distributes books to women at the local federal prison. He also dons the Jails Librarian hat on occasion and takes books to the county jail. His service covers the last 30 years, so he's lugged a ton of books in his day and has the muscles (and bruises) to prove it. This Marvel action figure often wears a beret, adding a certain "joie de livre" to the day's deliveries!

Alice moved on from her stint as Jails Librarian to a neighboring county, where she developed a network of donors who fill bags or boxes over time in their own homes. Alice then collects the bags from these donors and brings them our way. She also attends booksales and gathers paperbacks on behalf of our inmates. Besides her own audacity to scare up such a wide range of books, her car also deserves superhero status. It rides so low to the ground, it barely clears the bumps as donation day approaches!  

Hercules is on call for all future deliveries.

photo courtesy of Mystic Comics #3 (June 1940). Retrieved on February 8, 2009 from

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's she doing in there?

She's reading! Fifteen to twenty percent of the inmates served by Jails Library Service are women. An additional program, operated by Extension Services, serves women at the Federal Correctional Institute. The reading needs of women are unique, though they overlap with men's interests in most areas. Special attention is required in book selection and the staff has great fun meeting their needs.

The wider community needs to hear how much their efforts are appreciated by women in jail. The "Jails Team" gets to see the smiles and watch people crowd around when book cart arrives. Librarians get to hear the hilarious reviews of books, "I was so bored I had to read Jackie Collins!" and field interesting questions about science, history and biography. But the Jails Staff never forgets that our team includes all the Branch Library staffs, Friends Groups, Teen volunteers and generous patrons who donate material "to the cause." This extended family is especially important in the library service to women.

Magazines are essential components of this service. High fashion from Cosmo to Vogue, Seventeen, Ebony and Jet, Vanidades, Latina, People and National Geographic in English or Spanish, Vibe and Rolling Stone, Smithsonian and Discover, Bon Appetit and all the special topics covered by periodicals provide a great source of entertainment and information in the jail.

Perfume samples are an added perk we provide on occasion to the women in county jails. These have been meticulously culled from the magazines by our sneezing, sniffling posse of student volunteers. We pity the poor kids who have to smell this stuff! The bundles are nearly asphyxiating in the closed container of the jails van, but the buzz of excitement when they are handed out to the women makes the perfumery worthwhile. (We often bring Suskind's dark novel, Perfume, to show just how far "scent" can travel!)

Magazine recycling takes a strange twist at the jail. The women give origami a run for its money with the art form of "folded paper brooms." Small squares are joined together to form long sticks and sweepers. These brooms are used to sweep out cells and under bunks. The practice is not viewed fondly by the Jail Staff, who prefer to keep paper OUT of the living areas, and are wary of "weapon-making." However, the brooms are intricate and the library staff is always impressed by the inmates' ingenuity.

A group of women recently spoke with the staff while we restocked their book carts. These readers rekindled our staff's desire to maintain excellent service and work harder on book selection. While blushing romances and cutesie mysteries are popular (and plentiful in donations,) women continue to demand a full range of fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, they share the men's preference for Evanovich, Teri Woods, Sheldon, Collins, Zane, and Iyanla Vanzant. They like Patterson and Deaver, and it's a toss-up between J.R. Ward and J.K. Rowling! (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight hasn't really taken off.) Real life stories of adversity and humor are always welcome, from Sister Souljah to Sherman Alexie and Luis Rodriguez. Lesbian authors speak with courage and humor, or address the anger which many female inmates feel. In other words, incarcerated women want fantasy and reality mixed with intelligence and wit.

These "hot" stories, even the wild rides of Urban Fiction, engage a person's interest and often spark curiosity about other topics. People with long jail terms often develop a passion for non-fiction topics and challenge the librarians to bring more variety of history, science, poetry and biography.

The bleak and boring time between visiting hours or meals, job duties or pill call, are often made less depressing by library books. Besides the comments of inmates, Deputies and Technicians remark how reading material improves morale. One Sheriff hollered across the yard that inmates need more books now that they have more "pod time" (pod=common areas outside their cells.) Not only do books and magazines break the monotony felt by individuals; they spark many conversations and discussions between inmates!

Library service to incarcerated women is also important because it reconnects them to children, spouses, partners and parents outside jail. Reading for Life, a separate library program, administers the successful "Start with a Story" program, where volunteers both read stories and give away children's books to young people during visiting hours. The entire Sheriff's staff has been enthusiastic about this program, which complements other Inmate Service programs about parenting, job-preparedness, drug-counseling and GED. Jails Library Service supports these programs at every turn.

The library staff wants to thank friends behind the scenes who lift all those bags of magazines and books in and out of their cars, entrusting their donations to the local library, placing their beloved books in other people's hands. Donations make up the bulk of our collection and fill every cart at the jail. Women come running to the door and smiling when the librarians arrive--always grateful to their friends "on the outside."