the prison library

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.

via The Boston Globe.

The uniqueness of the Boston prison library, the element that made it strange, provocative even, was its utter normality. Were it not for inmates clad in prison uniforms — every color but orange, it seemed — the space might easily have been mistaken for a small public branch library. It felt like the outside world. Banal features of the room — for example, wall-to-wall carpeting — stood out amid the echo chambers of steel and concrete prison units. You could retreat into a corner of the shelves with a book, or sit at the long wooden table, and forget that you were in prison. You could, as inmates often told me, “feel like a normal person.”

There were differences, of course. There was no Internet connection. Our patrons were subject to body searches by officers, sometimes right outside the library door. Inmates came and went in tightly regimented shifts, according to their housing units, men during the day and women — who lived entirely separately — in the evenings. As a librarian, I had to stay vigilant for inmates storing or exchanging contraband. During a prison lock-down, the library would, without warning, lose its clientele.

Certain books, usually oversized volumes like art books or legal tomes, would sometimes serve as ad hoc mailboxes. Inmates would write letters or brief notes and stash them in the pages for other inmates. In a world without cellphones or Facebook, this was a central form of communication — especially between men and women.

What truly made the library unique, though, and what started to give me a clue to its promise, was its inhabitants. Take Fat Kat, for example. He got this nickname because he was a large fellow. But the name also revealed something more: He was a boss persona, a leader. In the prison library where I worked, he held sway. He helped run the circulation desk and fielded questions from other prisoners about the law and a variety of other topics. As the unofficial captain of the prison library inmate work detail, Kat had found his calling.

“This is where I’m doing my time,” he once told me, pointing to his seat behind the prison library’s circulation desk. “This is what I’m about now.”

Kat had about three years of prison behind him, with three more to go. He had spent his 20s involved with guns, drugs, and gangs. As it turned out, he was also an excellent and dedicated librarian. He tutored his fellow inmates in reading and math. He encouraged young inmates to pursue an education. Kat capitalized on his invaluable street cred and, in the library, reshaped himself into a new kind of role model. He was trusted by all — both inmates and staff. When he was released from prison, he found a job as a community mentor and educator, and continues this work today.