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."