Cell Service: Inside the World of Prison Librarians
While working as a librarian at one of the Ohio Department of Corrections' facilities, Andrew Hart received a fair amount of strange book requests. But one, from 2012, stands out in his mind.
"I was wondering if you could find a book for me," the inmate said.
“What is it?” Hart asked.
“I want a book on deboning chickens."
Hart paused. “Why would you need that?”
“I want to be a butcher when I get out.”
“I was not,” Hart tells Mental Floss, “going to get this guy a book on deboning chickens.”
There were other requests: books on getting out of restraints, survival guides, and other titles that would not be appropriate for a population of violent offenders. But for the two years Hart spent working as a prison librarian, the sometimes odd interactions were a small price to pay for helping to facilitate a sense of normalcy in an otherwise isolating and restrictive environment. With their carpeted floors, windows, and computers, prison libraries are one of the few sanctuaries available to inmates—a place that looks and feels like part of the outside world.
“I think it reminds them of a school library,” Hart says. “It brings them back to their childhood.”
The escapism afforded by the books can dilute the urge to pass time by engaging in criminal behavior. Libraries can even prepare prisoners for reentry into society after release, arming them with knowledge to pursue careers.
That ambition is what prompts graduates with degrees in library science to take detours—some temporary, others permanent—into managing books behind bars. Like public librarians, Hart organized book clubs, wrangled donations, and set up a shelf full of recommended reading. Unlike his public counterparts, Hart also had to take self-defense courses, check returned books for blood stains, and remain mindful of attempts to manipulate the privileges the library offered.
“You can be friendly,” he says of his interactions with inmates, “but you can’t be friends.”
Being allowed the pleasure of reading has been a privilege for prisoners for nearly as long as the idea of criminal detention itself. In the 1700s, religious tomes were handed out with hopes that wayward convicts would find spiritual guidance and correct their behaviors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, an increase in public libraries bled into penal institutions, and scholars advocated for “bibliotherapy,” or rehabilitation through literacy. Inmates devoured texts on psychology and law, increasing their self-awareness and sometimes antagonizing officials by challenging their sentences or their treatment within a facility.
Today, roughly 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in federal or state facilities that offer varying degrees of access to literature, from a few shelves full of worn titles to sprawling legal and recreational selections. When Hart decided to put his bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s in library science to use at the Ohio facility, he was dismayed to find that the unit had only 600 books in its inventory.
“It was dimly lit and barely had any computers,” he says. “My heart just sank.”
Hart set about improving the library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates could request books from public libraries—and “hustling” for book donations from local merchants and other sources. “When you think of a library, you think of books,” he says. “I wanted inmates to come in and see the shelves were full.”
In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.
Anna Nash, an institutional librarian who oversees multiple facilities for the Institutional Library Services arm of the Washington State Library, says that young adult titles are in demand. “So are paranormal romance titles,” she tells Mental Floss.
That prisoners seek out escapist fiction is not so surprising. But for the groups of prisoners who are admitted to the library on a rotating schedule, it’s as much the environment as the content that makes them feel as though they are somewhere else. “The library feels normal,” Nash says. “I had someone who worked in a public library come in as a volunteer one time and she was surprised at how clean everything and everyone looked. It’s a place where prison politics can be quasi-suspended.”
If a prison is home to inmates who segregate themselves by race or gang affiliation, the library is a place to congregate. Hart spearheaded book clubs and discussion groups; Nash recently finished a meet-up to discuss George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For one project, Hart solicited recipes from inmates and compiled them into a cookbook that he had custom-printed. For another, he collected art for publication and had the warden of the prison choose his favorite for the cover. He also became a notary so he could help inmates with their legal documents.
“I think it helped them see me in a different light,” Hart says.
How inmates see and perceive librarians is often the variable that separates public libraries from prison facilities. “They want to test you, to see how far they can go,” Nash says.
When Nash accepted her first job at a Washington prison library in 2008, friends and relatives were puzzled. “You’re in there with men?” some asked. “With murderers?”
She was. And as a staff member, she was expected to exert no less authority than any other employee of the prison. Upon hiring, she underwent a self-defense course in the event an inmate attacked her. She told inmates to tuck in their shirts so that they couldn’t obscure contraband. She admonished them to keep a physical distance from one another.
Nash also avoided answering any personal questions, no matter how innocuous they might seem, like "What’s your favorite book?" “They’re trying to test boundaries," says says. "We used the word ‘testing,' which is trying to get a staff member to do something they’re not allowed to do.” An inmate, for example, might want to tear the comics out of the newspaper. If Nash said no, the inmate would argue that another employee had let them do it before.
“They will try to play you,” Hart says, recalling the time a prisoner asked if he could tattoo a friend in the library, a fairly obvious infraction of the rules. “They want to seem chummy with you, like you’re two friends hanging out.” A prisoner might have a story for why they need to make more copies of legal papers than what’s allowed, or why they need to check out more books than the maximum allotted. To get an official to bend the rules is something of a victory for the prisoner, and one that could conceivably result in a breakdown of the supervisor's authority.
For Nash, being a woman assigned to a male population posed its own challenges. “When someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, beautiful,’ they know what they’re doing,” she says. “And if you smile back, they think it means something more.”
Hart has heard stories about employees developing inappropriate relationships with inmates. “It can creep in, where you begin bringing in stuff for them,” he says. “You want to be their friend, but you have to maintain that separation.”
It’s better to be the one doing the asking. When Nash tries to find out what a prisoner wants so she can make a recommendation, the answer can depend on whether they have a release date in sight. For some, a library isn’t just a release from prison; it’s a way to avoid prison after their release.
At the age of 20, Eddie Parnell flunked out of community college after less than one semester. Drugs held more sway than an education. “Once I tried meth, that was it for me,” he tells Mental Floss. The descent wasn’t immediate—he could hold down a job while fending off misdemeanor charges—but it was inevitable. At 30, Parnell began the first of what would become three prison stints for drug possession and burglary, the final one stretching for 31 months in Walla Walla, Washington.
At Walla Walla, passing time with a television was an expensive proposition. “A TV cost $275 and we made $30 a month working in the kitchen,” Parnell says. “So I would just dig my heels into a good story.” Parnell read Louis L’Amour westerns before growing tired of their repetitive narratives; he segued to Clive Cussler and Stephen King. Some of the paperbacks were so worn that inmates would tape labels from shampoo bottles to try and reinforce their torn covers.
For much of his sentence, Parnell read books simply to pass time. But Walla Walla’s educational library—a separate facility from the regular library—promised more. The department had just received a boost from philanthropist Doris Buffett (sister of Warren Buffet) that helped fund a program where inmates could earn an associate’s degree based on the belief that educational funding was sorely lacking when exploring solutions to the issue of recidivism.
Parnell decided he would pursue a degree in molecular bioscience and used all of the resources available to him—including the librarian—to make sure he was stepping into the right environment upon his release. “I couldn’t have done that without access to those resources,” he says.
According to the National Institute of Justice, two-thirds of released inmates are rearrested within three years, so mired in the cycle of criminal offenses that they see no other alternative. “They say reentry begins at sentencing, but the culture is still a ways off from that,” Nash says.
Even so, inmates often come in seeking information on how to build opportunities during and after their imprisonment. Some opt to try and learn a trade or how to start a small business. Others take advantage of the reference material in reentry programs to try and cultivate an exit strategy, whether it’s earning a GED or pursuing a degree. Upon his release in 2014, Parnell went the degree route.
“I graduate in May,” Parnell says. “Instead of being a detriment on society, I’ll be paying taxes. The library system contributed to this.”
For all of the benefits offered, prison libraries still come up against bureaucratic obstacles. The longest-running one is censorship, or the idea that certain titles aren’t suited for incarcerated populations.
But who decides, and why? Recently, New Jersey corrections officials were criticized for taking a book titled The New Jim Crow out of circulation. Published in 2010, the nonfiction work details accusations of racial discrimination in sentencing. Such action is in conflict with a librarian’s support of freedom of speech and publication and the American Library Association’s call to fight censorship as part of its ethical mandates.
“In Ohio, I called it the ‘banned book list,’ even though a lawyer vehemently told me not to do that,” Hart says. “Usually, it’s when a review team of a librarian, an administrator, a teacher, or someone else finds something objectionable.” The New Jim Crow is certainly a nebulous choice; other titles, like how-tos on weapons-making or combat, are natural omissions. “I couldn’t even get a tai chi book in,” Hart says.
Titles can be taken out of circulation for reasons other than content. A handful of times, Hart tossed a book he thought had blood stains on it. When he mentioned it to an inmate who worked in the library, the man said that wasn’t likely to happen too often.
“Why not?” Hart asked.
“We’re not going to return a book with blood on it,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”
After two years, a fatigued Hart went on to another state job outside of the prison system. “It was fulfilling but very stressful,” he says, citing long hours and the demands of a job with limited resources.
Like Nash, who still works with inmates in Washington, Hart still finds tremendous value in making sure offenders have access to the written word. For inmates who choose to take advantage, it can be a life-changing component of doing time.
“Libraries reduce mental, emotional, and physical conflicts in the prison system,” Parnell says. “If a person is reading a book, they’re not picking a fight in the next cell over. If not for the library, I would be getting ready to go back in.”