By Julia Weist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Growing up, my father was the production designer for a violent television show that took place in a prison. When Nick Higgins, Correctional Services Librarian at New York Public Library, invited me to do a day of library service at Rikers, I thought: I spent my childhood in a fake jail–it’ll be like second nature, right? But then, on the Q100 out to the island, Luis Torres, Information Assistant, told me that there was the possibility that an alarm could sound during our service. “If that happens,” he explained calmly, “we’ll stop and enter a safe space. The alarm signifies a riot or the injury of a correctional officer by an inmate.” Honestly reader, I got scared, and I got scared again when I saw the riot gear, and again when I checked out the first book to the first prisoner in cell block 6.
And then it got easier. After a dozen check-outs an inmate told me he was going to re-draw every page of comic he was taking, explaining he does so every week, and I told him I was an artist too. I wrote down requests for 1984, Walden, UFO, and business management books. By noon I felt that there needed to be 10 more of Nick Higgins and Luis Torres. The books were looking to me like the difference between correctional services and purgatory.
I urge every New Yorker to advocate for library services in correctional facilities; the work described below is not mandated by the Department of Corrections: it’s a NYPL program. Because of limited resources and staff, the service doesn’t extend to every inmate at Rikers. If you have the time and inclination, reach out to Nick, spend a day working with him as a volunteer. I highly recommend the experience for every librarian who feels a responsibility to every reader, “no matter where they happen to be.”
What’s your background? Have you always worked in Correctional Services Librarianship?
I graduated from Pratt in May of 2009. I was part of the now dissolved IMLS funded PULSE librarian trainee program through Brooklyn Public Library and Pratt. PULSE was set up to provide library school students real work experience rotating through several branches and departments at BPL as a full time trainee. I was fortunate to have had many great mentors at BPL who encouraged me to do work that I thought would be useful to people in Brooklyn. This led to a whole range of interesting jobs. For the first year I was at BPL I rotated around to different branches in the system working at whatever staff would let me do. I manned the reference desk, processed library cards, ran children’s programs, book talks, writing workshops, and went on a lot of school visits. I also picked up a mop every once in a while when one of the kids at a branch would throw up. These were all daily events at a public library and I found it all pretty fascinating.
Later on a colleague in the Brooklyn Collection archive and I decided to put together a Veterans Oral History Project. We got a small digital recorder and started inviting ourselves to VFV and DAV meetings around Brooklyn. Soon we found ourselves sitting sipping coffee in church basements from Bay Ridge to Brighton Beach listening to stories about combat duty from Brooklyn Veterans in wars going back to WWII. The stories we recorded are now at the Brooklyn Collection and the Library of Congress. After that I worked with the Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs where, among other things, I helped coordinate a program working with kids with low vision and blindness learn table manners and dining etiquette. The Child’s Place also let me drive the Kidsmobile (BPL’s library on wheels) when Clyde, the regular driver, wasn’t available. We’d drive to parks, schools and street fairs and read books and sing songs to whatever kids we found there. We signed people up for library cards and let them check out books from the truck. This was easily my favorite job at the library. Later I was able to work as a one-on-one job search librarian. People would make an appointment with me and I’d help them research ways to prepare for the world of work including reviewing resumes, conducting mock interviews and identifying potential employment opportunities. I also got a chance to work with formerly incarcerated fathers in several programs. By the end of my stay at BPL I was the acting manager of Volunteer Services. A couple months into that job James Huffman, my predecessor in Correctional Services, called me to say he was retiring and suggested I apply for the job. Despite all the wonderful opportunities BPL had offered me during my three years there, I knew that Correctional Services was the job that I was preparing for. It was hard to leave Brooklyn but it was the right decision.
How many librarians are involved in the Correctional Services program at New York Public? How big is your department and how is it organized? Are there different librarians for different facilities (you mentioned Sing Sing and Rikers)?
There are two staff members in Correctional Services at NYPL. I am the sole librarian on staff. Luis Torres, my colleague, is an Information Assistant. Luis and I run four mobile libraries and one standing library at Rikers Island. We also coordinate a Baby Lapsit program in the nursery out there. Babies who are born to incarcerated women on the Island are allowed to stay with their moms for up to a year. Luis and I bring in Children’s Librarians from NYPL and BPL to read to the babies, sing songs, do finger plays, etc. If we can’t find a children’s librarian for the visit, I do it.
In October I was asked by the Assistant Principal at the girls’ High School at Rikers to help them build up their library. The library looked to me to be a repository for books donated by no doubt well-intentioned people who nonetheless decided, consciously or otherwise, that incarcerated teen girls would be happy reading whatever they were sent, despite the subject matter or condition. I found many books on menopause, GED books dating back to 1987, way too many copies of a Barbra Streisand biography, and a lot of Norman Mailler for some reason – among several other books that were wholly inappropriate for teen girls in 2010. I brought in a few great library school students from Pratt to help with the project. Each week we spent a few hours in the library weeding the several hundred seriously crappy books from the collection and replacing them with books we dragged out there in duffel bags. After a couple months the students from Pratt took over the project and basically revamped the library by themselves. The library looks great now and we hope to start programming with the incarcerated teens when the school year starts again.
We also employ several volunteers to help us answer the 50 or so letters we receive each week from inmates around the country. Volunteers help us write blogs, update our annual re-entry guide Connections, organize and weed our ever expanding collection of donated books, they write thank you letters to people who send us books, and they sometimes help us push around our book carts at jails on Rikers. Luis and I also give monthly presentations at 6 State Facilities, like Sing Sing, and a Federal Prison. Because of strict clearance issues we don’t have volunteers help with this.
What is a typical day is like for you? When you visit the facility, do you bring only material that has been requested by inmates or do you do collection development for a onsite collection?
You should come with us sometime to see what a day is like at Rikers if you want. There is really nothing typical about any day we work, which is pretty nice. In a typical week Luis and I are out at Rikers a total of three days. Tuesdays and Thursdays we run our mobile libraries and on Fridays I go in to lead the standing library.
When we do the mobile libraries we meet in the morning at a deli in Long Island City Queens. The New Dream Deli on Jackson. We usually have a couple volunteers meet us.
The Q 100 bus to Rikers Island stops out front and we hop on and ride the bus to the jail. Luis and I are usually weighed down by several bags filled with inmate book requests, magazines, newspapers, circulation sheets, and copies of Connections books. The bus is usually filled with other service providers, attorneys, Rikers staff and inmate families. Once we get to the jail we check to see if the front gate has copies of clearance papers for our volunteers. If we are cleared to go we pass to the back of the building to a bay of Rikers buses that take people to the ten different jails on the Island. Once we get to the facility where we are doing the service, we pass through more security, including an x-ray machine, and head to a small office where we store our book cart and a small collection of books we use or inmates at that facility. We replenish the book cart with new books, check to see if we can fill any requests from inmates with the collection of books, then we head out to do the service.
At each facility it’s a little different, but basically we roll the cart into a housing area. Each housing area has two sides, an A Side and a B Side, with at least one Officer sitting in an elevated room, or “Bubble,” that overlooks both sides. There is also at least one Officer sitting inside the dorm areas. The dorm areas look different at each jail. Some are open with several rows of beds on the floor, and others have a large common area surrounded by perimeter of individual cells. When we enter an area we announce that the library is there and the inmates will form a line and those who have books to return from the previous week will get first choice at the book cart. One of us, usually Luis, will check in the books and our volunteer(s) and I will help the inmate choose another book for the week. These men and women will often ask for suggestions and sometimes we have time to talk about what they like to read and what they found interesting about the books they have read. This is regular library work at its best in my opinion. It also may be the first time all week that someone has looked them in the eye and asked them their opinion about anything. “What did you think of the book?” A question like that goes a long way with some of the people we see at Rikers. When an inmate finds a book (they are also able to take a magazine and a daily newspaper) they give us their inmate ID and we write down their name, inmate Book and Case number, the title of the book and magazine, and whatever titles they’d like us to look for next time around. We are not allowed any electronic equipment in the jail, so all of this is done by hand.
Every other week we also visit the solitary confinement area, or ‘Bing’ in a male facility. We work with staff there to deliver books requested by inmates from an inventory list of books in a collection reserved just for them.
The standing library is a relatively new project for us. We run it at the EMTC jail on Rikers. A while back I drove out about 2,000 books to the jail and stored them in a closet in the back of an old gymnasium. An Officer in the Programs office helped us get a bunch of shallow crates (used primarily to store bread) and we lined the crates with these books. Now on Friday mornings we pull these crates from storage and place them on long tables the length of the gym. The Officer then calls down housing areas to the gym and guys can browse the books we have and we sign them out just like in our mobile libraries. In many ways this is a better way to do the service. This feels more like a library. There’s a better opportunity to browse and talk about books. We have more conversations with the inmates about what they like to read and it really feels oddly normal, which is the point. If they can look at libraries as something positive, not intimidating, non-judgmental, and just a regular part of a normal life, then there’s a good shot at these guys using the library when they get out.
Are you working with only books and periodicals or also moving image and sound material?
We’re not allowed to bring out audio books or DVDs or anything like that. Books, newspapers, mags. That’s it. Although we just got approved to bring in a digital recorder to record incarcerated fathers reading a book to their kids. What I’ll do is transfer the recording to a CD and send it to the inmate’s family along with a copy of the book. I’ve read about similar projects over the years and I had it in my back pocket for a while. There happens to be a new Deputy at the jail who was looking for a program idea and I pitched it, and alas, he loved it. So, we’re set to start recording in September. I’m pretty excited about it.
Outside of Rikers we visit different state prisons, about 4 or 5 times a month to talk to inmates about to be released about library services available to them when they get back to the city. We sign them up for library cards, give them an orientation to NYPL, and I’ll occasionally do a book talk.
Other days, we spend at the office (this is rare) where Luis will transfer all of our handwritten circulation sheets to the computer and I catch up on answering inmate letters and emails. Normal office stuff. I am also in the process of editing the Connections guide. Every now and again I will go out to someone’s house or an organization to pick up book donations.
Is there anything you wished the public, or the government, was more aware of about your readers in correctional facilities?
I guess I’d just like other librarians, members of the public, or whoever to know that it’s a responsibility of the public library to provide access to information to everyone, no matter where they happen to be. A book isn’t going to be the sole thing that turns a person’s life around, but it’s an opportunity to hook someone into a positive habit. The best part of my job comes when a guy I gave a book to pulls me aside and can’t stop talking about the it. It may have been the first book he’s read in years. He may identify certain traits in a character that he sees in himself, some things that are good or bad, but most importantly, just a self-consciousness that was triggered by reading the book. I think that’s a step in the right direction.