interview with a prison librarian

Recently, a commenter, Oryx, mentioned that she used to work as a prison librarian, and I wanted to learn more. She graciously agreed to do an interview for us, and here’s the Q&A.

How did you end up in the job? And how long were you there?

I answered an ad I found through, but which was originally posted on my state’s job board (even though I worked for a for-profit prison that was not managed by the state). To be honest, when I first applied, I didn’t realize it was a prison because neither the name nor the ad made it sound super obvious, and when I got called for an interview I almost didn’t go. But I had just finished grad school, and it was right when the economy was sinking and the librarianship field was in dire straits, so if nothing else I figured I’d get good interviewing experience. But they ended up hiring me and I was there for 21 months. It was all-male, minimum security. We had a strong substance abuse program, so the majority of inmates were sent there if they were on drug crimes or DUI.

Tell us a bit about what a typical day was like.

The prison library was open six days a week, two shifts per day: either the morning and afternoon or afternoon and evening. I’d get to work about 30 minutes before the library opened. If it was the morning, there would already be inmates waiting outside the door. If it was the afternoon, I’d get there right at the count time before lunch so the yard would be empty as they were all in their bunks. Each shift was open for about 3 or 4 hours. Then we’d close for an hour or two for count and the meal, then reopen.

During that half hour, I’d make copies or print documents that had been left from the day before. Inmates paid for copies and print-outs but only legal documents could be copied or printed so I had to check everything first (on the computers they only had access to Lexis-Nexis and an open office word processing program). After that, I set everything up for the day, including turning on lights, setting out sign-in/out sheets, making sure tables and chairs were in order.

Most of my day was spent in more of a manager position, as I had inmate works at the circulation desk who did all the checking in and out of books (we stilled used the old-fashioned card pockets in the back of the book) or handling newspapers and magazines. There was also a law library where the computers and typewriters were, which was also staffed by a handful of inmates. I became a notary as part of the position so I would spend a lot of the time notarizing documents, helping with book recommendations (although my workers got good at this, too), cataloging donated books, keeping circulation stats updated for my monthly report and, of course, I was there to maintain control. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time maintaining the rules: telling inmates to make sure they sign in and out, make sure their shirts were tucked in, make sure they take their hats off, no food and drink. It’s the prison, we had a lot of policies so that was a big part of my job).

The afternoon shift was by far the busiest, because the newspapers and magazines came in during lunch. There was always a delay so the papers were a couple days behind, but the inmates didn’t seem to care. We carried USA Today and most of the major papers from around the state. Magazines were pretty broad interests like Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Car and Driver, things like that.

Because we were minimum security, the inmates were free to come and go when the yard was open. The only exception to this was when Daylight Saving Time ended each year, and during the evening shift, it would be dark in the evening. Once the lights out in the yard turned on, the inmates were not allowed to leave the library until it closed and only after I took a count and called control up front and let them know how many inmates were leaving. I’d do a “last call” type of situation before sunset and after that they were stuck in the library until we closed. The inmates hated that and would try to leave early, but there wasn’t anything I could do (and even if they did leave early, there were always correctional officers out patrolling the grounds, so even if they stepped outside they’d usually get told to get back inside from both the COs and me).

On Fridays, I would go down to the segregation unit where inmates who have been temporarily removed from the general population stayed. I’d go around cell to cell and ask if there were any books they wanted to read then I’d bring them those books on Saturdays. There was a small bookshelf of titles that I changed out once a month or so.

I’m sure that when you went into librarianship, it wasn’t so you could spend time telling adults to tuck in their shirts. How did you adjust to that aspect of the job?

It was kind of like being a glorified babysitter in many ways. The inmate workers were there to do most of the day-to-day front line stuff of checking books out and putting books away on the shelves. I helped with readers advisory and cataloging, things that were a bit outside their scope. But since there was no guard, I was kind of the guard by default, so it was mostly my job to keep the volume down, make sure interactions didn’t escalate, that sort of thing.

Truthfully, there were a lot of rules at the prison I didn’t agree with and still don’t, like the shirt stuff. But if security came in on rounds and saw inmates with shirts untucked or hats on, both the inmate and I would get reprimanded since I was the one not doing my job by letting them come in all untucked. So part of adjusting was doing it because I didn’t want to get in trouble.

What kind of training did you get that was specific to working in a prison?

My very first day was actually spent off site at an unarmed self-defense class that everyone had to take before being allowed to set foot on the prison unaccompanied. We all had panic buttons, but I was always in the library on my own; the guard was next door. Guns were not allowed within the fence, so unarmed self-defense was the only way to go (luckily I never had to put those skills to use). They also had a two-week orientation I had to go through, although because of the timing I’d been there for about six months before I attended. Then once a year, we’d go through a week-long refresher course. We learned about the different departments and, for whatever reason, the security one was always everyone’s favorite. Several decades ago, our state had a very famous prison riot take place and they’d walk us through step by step what happened. Looking back, it’s weird to think that was the class employees loved the most but I think it was the shock factor of it all. Part of orientation also included a session where we looked for fake contraband: they turned one of the medical rooms into a cell and hid contraband, and as a group we were supposed to search the room to get a sense of the sheer creativity these inmates had.

A while back, I went through a training program to volunteer to teach courses in a local jail. (At the end of the program, they ran background checks and wouldn’t let me actually start teaching because I have civil disobedience in my background, which apparently made me a security risk.) Anyway, the training was fascinating. One thing they really stressed was that we should constantly be on guard against being conned — that if we let down our guard at any point, an inmate would take advantage of it (like by convincing us to bring in contraband, or give them money, or who knows what else). I’m sure there was good reason for that piece of the training from a security and safety standpoint, but I still suspect they over-emphasized it (probably to ensure people took it seriously, I suppose). Anyway, does that resonate with your experience?

I don’t know if I would say such training is over-emphasized because it does happen. I think it probably seems over-emphasized because you go into this thinking you won’t think you’ll fall for it, or you’ll be able to know when you’re being conned, and you’re smart and won’t be a victim, and that just isn’t always the case. Especially since they start small, like any con. It’s a long game, so, no, they aren’t going to come right out and ask if you’ll bring in contraband or bring in money. Like, they’ll just start with flattery and see how you react to that and go from there. I have red hair and at the time it was down to my waist, really gorgeous. But during work hours I kept it up in a bun or braid, because every time I wore it down I’d get compliments from inmates which were innocuous but within context borderline inappropriate because of where we were.

Relationships between staff and inmates were obviously a big no-no and, again, it seems on the surface like such an obvious thing to stay away from but — and I’m not exaggerating — every six months, like clockwork, another female employee was getting “walked out” (or fired, basically escorted off the property) for having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. Some were I think genuinely romantic in nature, with relationships continuing once the inmate was released. But others were the reflection of the woman being conned. Several were married. One in particular was found out because she’d written a note to the inmate which the inmate kept and said note was discovered during a routine search. Imagine getting to go home and tell your husband that story the day you lose your job.

I had an inmate working for me who had been there before I started, and I was told that my predecessor had had some kind of relationship with him, though I don’t know to what extent (gossip ran like wildfire). Even being too friendly would have counted and, well, anyway, I had the job because she was fired. So now I was managing him, and from the very beginning he was clearly trying to go the flattery route and eager to help and please me and tried a bit too hard. He said something or other that clearly crossed a line so I wrote him up for it, and as soon as he knew that I wasn’t going to fall for it like the woman before me, he did a 180 and pretty much never spoke to me again unless absolutely necessary.

Truthfully, if they were trying to con you for anything it was mostly for special privileges, like you looking the other way while they took the fruit out of the mess hall after breakfast (fruit couldn’t go to the dorms because it could be fermented and turned into hooch) or in the library it could have something like letting them have two newspapers at a time instead of one. That sort of thing. That’s why consistency was the key with all interactions, though it didn’t always go over very well.

That makes sense. So, what did you like best about the work? What was the hardest/most challenging?

I really, really enjoyed working with the inmates. It was a bit of a culture shock for me at first but once I got settled I realized that it was really just like a normal library: I had regular patrons who came in the same time every day (and, of course, I had those regular problem patrons as well) and I had to help them find books to read or access legal information. I’ve worked in libraries for 15 years, and this really wasn’t that different from the suburban public library I worked at in high school.

The hardest/most challenging had to do with patron privacy and access to information. As a librarian, those are two ideals that are of utmost importance in our field, but they don’t exist in the prison, let alone the prison library. Things that were deemed too violent or explicit were not allowed, although we didn’t have a specific list of banned books; it was mostly subjective. The inmates in the segregation unit (aka “the hole”) aren’t allowed to have hardback books because of safety concerns, so if the book they wanted was only available in hardback, I wasn’t allowed to give it to them. On the issue of patron privacy, if an inmate came in asking for Mein Kampf, he was allowed to have the book but I was supposed to inform security so they could keep an eye on the inmate to see if there was any white supremacy gang-related activity going forward or in his history.

Going in, I think I had a vague sense that these sorts of situations would come up, but I had no idea how challenging it would be for my sense of self as a librarian. If anything, it reaffirmed my initial desire to get into the field to support patron privacy and access to information, something I still strongly advocate for today.

What surprised you the most from doing this work? 

I was surprised by how fulfilling it turned out to be, especially when it came to helping inmates find books or information. My favorite was when an inmate roughly my age came in looking for a book to read. He dropped out of high-school and was currently in our GED program and decided that if he was going to be stuck here he might as well make use of his time by reading all those books he should have read in high-school but didn’t. So I decided to start with The Great Gatsby, and all I told him was that it was about a gangster. He checked it out right away and within days was back asking for another book just like it.

I also used a white board out in the library foyer to share an “On This Day in History” factoid. Some inmates would stop by just to see what the new event was and on days I didn’t work it wouldn’t always get updated by my cover so they’d often want to know yesterday’s, too.

What didn’t you know when you started that ended up being important?

What I didn’t know when I started was how important the library was to the inmates. Because there was no guard in there and no bars on the windows or anything like that, it was the only place in the entire facility that didn’t feel like it was part of a prison. They could come for a couple hours of day, read the local paper from their hometown, hang out with their friends, etc. I worked hard to make it feel like a safe, “normal” space, and the inmates thanked me by looking out for me in their own ways. There were two instances where inmates were, ahem, pleasuring themselves in the library while looking at me. One I didn’t even know about until after because one of my workers went up to the guy, whispered in his ear to basically get the fuck out, and the guy did. My worker only told me because he wanted to make sure I was aware and to be on the lookout in the future. The other guy, I witnessed in action and had to call the guard over. One of the other inmates who had been in the library and saw it later told the same guard to confirm that it had happened when the masturbator started to deny it.

I was also completely unprepared for how much I’d learn about the law. It also made me a stronger advocate against the death penalty. I’d always been against it, but this experience just confirmed it. I saw guys in their 70s and 80s and they were only in there for a couple of years and it was rough, but they were going to get out eventually. Being stuck in a maximum security prison at that age is a fate worse than death.

I’m picturing the role being one of the few in a prison where you could transcend the strict control and power dynamics that must be hallmarks of prisoners’ interactions with other people who worked there. (Or maybe I’m being terribly naive.) Did you find that that was true?

Absolutely. I wasn’t a corrections officer, it wasn’t my job to keep them in line quite so much, so I do think I had a bit more … flexibility in terms of my interactions with the inmates. Nothing that crossed any lines (of which there were many), and I wouldn’t say I became friends with any of them necessarily, but I didn’t see them as ducks I had to keep in a row every single day. I wasn’t there to remind them they were in prison. So, for instance, I managed about a dozen inmates at a single time, and whenever I hired a new inmate (or was assigned one by the job person), I would allow one of my more senior workers to train the new guy. I wanted to try and give them as much autonomy as possible within allowed limitations and also encourage them to do and be more than just an inmate in prison.

I think that went hand-in-hand with the inmates wanting to look out or protect me because I wasn’t seen as one of the “bad guys.” I was frequently told the library was one of the more popular places to work because I was a good manager (which is funny because I hated being a manager, and not just because of where I worked).

I’ve always been really interested in prison reform and convinced that we’re doing ourselves as a society no favors with the way we handle incarceration (one of the reasons I wanted to volunteer at the jail). Aside from what you mentioned about the death penalty, did you come out of that job with any other takeaways about what we’re doing right / what we’re doing wrong?

We need to decriminalize drugs; that entire situation needs reform. And whether you are pro-drug-reform or not, it’s impossible to ignore that the justice system targets black men, especially when it comes to drug-related offenses. Our population was almost nearly 50/50 black and white, and if a black man was in our prison, there was probably a 90% chance he was there on a drug crime. Considering we were a substance abuse facility, with NA and AA classes, it was ridiculous to see the imbalance between the people of color in on drug crimes compared to the small number of white men in on drug crimes. And, of course, the white men almost always had shorter sentences.

I also think education within the prison system needs attention and money. We had a GED program and graduation ceremonies and everything, but I think more prisons should offer trade classes or programs, especially if you’re dealing with inmates who are in on shorter sentences and need to have a skill when they leave. We were fortunate enough to live in a state where a university offers a mail-in degree programs specifically for inmates, but paying for that from inside is near impossible. So even if an inmate wanted to set himself up for success when he leaves, he has the cards stacked against him.

I think we also need to educate society on how helping inmates succeed after release only helps all of us. I set up a section in the library with information related to re-entry resources like career centers who will work with ex-convicts, or starting your own business, stuff like that. But I can only do so much from inside; when they get out the world has a very different view of what it means to be an ex-con, and so their chances of being successful are limited simply because of society’s negative view. I do hear more about pockets that are starting businesses specifically to give jobs to men (and women) who had formerly been incarcerated and that’s a good start, but there needs to be more. They had jobs when they were incarcerated, they are hard workers, and most wanted to just do their time and go home and start fresh, but if the support system isn’t there, they’ll just be back.

Recidivism is high and it’s not only because you’re dealing with convicts. Some of it is just a cycle they can’t get out of because they don’t have any other options. If you have a good set-up selling drugs, making money, and setting your own hours and then you catch a case and are in inside for a year or two, when you get out, you know nobody is going to hire you, so you might as well keep doing what you had been doing to put food on the table for your family. It’s really heartbreaking because in most cases, these are just men who made one stupid decision and got caught. We’ve all made stupid decisions and haven’t been caught. Or we’ve been caught but have gotten away with it because of inherent privilege. I know the fates of some of the inmates who worked for me, either because of social media or I’ve even seen some walking around the city, but most of them, I have no idea what happened to them and if they managed to make a life once they got out.

{ 215 comments… read them below }

    1. Specialk9*

      This was an amazing interview. Absolutely fascinating, and I really appreciate the compassion. Thanks!

  1. OriginalEmma*

    Wow, this was fascinating.

    I wonder if The Count of Monte Cristo is on the “banned books” list?

        1. Rebecca in Dallas*

          I was totally picturing this movie while reading the interview! Did you have a Brooks?

          Thanks so much to you and Alison, this was so interesting.

          1. Oryx*

            I did, actually! Or several, but one in particular who reminded me very much of Brooks. He was transferred to another facility at one point and I know some of my other workers kept in contact with him via letters. I’m also fairly certain I’ve seen him walking not too far from my neighborhood, but I’m always in my car when it happens plus that whole “Hey! You knew me at the prison!” situation can be weird.

            1. Rebecca in Dallas*

              Aww, that makes me happy! Although life on the outside didn’t work out well for Brooks…

          1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

            It did! And the Wikipedia article specifically mentions that Alexandre Dumas was popular, along with Kant and Hegel.

            If you ever get to San Francisco, I highly recommend Alcatraz – the audio tour is narrated by former inmates of the prison, and it’s fascinating.

  2. JoAnna*

    This was so interesting. Thank you!

    There is a women’s prison about 10 miles south of my house, and one of my former carpool partners used to manage a call center there, staffed by inmates. (The call center was for outside companies, run by a company that had some sort of contract with the prison for staffing.) I had no idea such a thing existed in prisons.

    1. Preaction*

      Random related fact: The 13th amendment to the US Constitution bans slavery, except as punishment for a crime. Make of that what you wish.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      It does, and it’s super shady. Prisoners are paid a laughable wage (like, 10 cents an hour). This should really, really be illegal.

      I’ll add a comment with a link to an eye-opening piece from The Atlantic last month, about the constitutional loophole that essentially allows slavery in prisons.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Thank you for saying this. We have prisoners that owe tens of thousands of dollars in restitution/child support/ court fines/ etc. And they are being paid 10 cents an hour. Wait. That is not the end. When they get their check it is maybe $1, because money is taken out to pay what they owe.

        What are we teaching with these actions? What is the prisoner learning about how society works and how life goes? It’s strictly punitive with elements of vindictiveness/revenge added in, there is no rehab going on here.

        And don’t get me started on counseling, a person with a staggering case load is not going to be an effective counselor. Additionally, if a prisoner gets moved to another area of the prison, access to any counseling can be cut right off.
        In my state if a prisoner wants to get more education, his family must fund it. Yet, the lack of education is known to be directly tied to recidivism rates.

        We are so dense, sometimes.

        1. Broke Law Student*

          There’s also the fact that the commissary jacks up prices, and until the recent FCC decision, phone calls could be as expensive as $18/minute. A minute! We are basically saying, you have to do full-time work, but can’t actually purchase anything with it. Appalling.

          I’m doing research on abortion access in prison, and in my state, prisoners can access abortion but only if they pay for it. So you know, they can work 5,000 hours to pay for the procedure if, in the meantime, they don’t use the phone, pay for anything in commissary, have any outstanding debts…

    3. Oryx*

      Yes, prisons often are able to get contract work like that because they are able to dramatically undercut the costs of traditional companies.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Yup. And especially with for-profit prisons, it leads to people being thrown in prison for spurious reasons to increase revenue. Looootttsss of problematic stuff going on.

            1. Anon On This One*

              The company I work with runs for-profit prisons as well as other institutional situations. When I took the job I didn’t know this and I have serious ethical concerns about it. Especially since it seems they’re convincing governments overseas to contract with them to run their prisons. I no longer work FOR this company, but they are very involved in how I do my job.

      1. Ad Astra*

        Was it Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods that recently decided not to sell products made by prisoners? I’m sure there are many benefits to doing real, skilled work in prison, but it feels gross that they’re not making at least minimum wage.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          And then subtracting out what it costs to feed and house inmates? I don’t think most get a solid 8 hours of work a day, isn’t it usually just a couple of hours at most? There’s still plenty of opportunity for mismanagement, but if the daily costs are $50+* per day and they only work, say 10 hours a week, then getting even pennies an hour is still way better than any minimum wage. If they’re actually working full or nearly full time, then it would be a different equation. And for profit prisons are a problem on top of that. But the food, housing, and healthcare costs should at least be considered.

          *A very low estimate based on a quick Google search

          1. Anon On This One*

            Well, no. The food, housing, and healthcare costs shouldn’t be considered when we’re talking about using prisoners as workers. Because that’s the sort of thinking that lends itself to taking advantage of prisoners, which is what we’re seeing more and more of. There’s a reason people see using the prison population as labor as a new form of slavery and it’s that kind of justification that helps the mindset that the prisoners are getting more out of it than they put in.

            1. ThursdaysGeek*

              I did point out that there were plenty of opportunities for mismanagement, and thus it is something that should be approached with caution. And certainly the prisoners are not there for what they can get out of it!

              But, when I was a teen and was in a government work program (not justice related at all), money from our pay was taken out to cover our room and board. I don’t think it covered costs, but I also think as a result our final take home pay was less than minimum wage (it might have started at minimum wage, but I don’t recall). It seemed reasonable that if were were provided a place to stay and food to eat that we paid something for that. We were free to not take that job if we didn’t like the terms.

              My understanding is that prisoners are free to not work in prison jobs. Do we still have chain gangs who are required to work?

              Companies that pay for prisoner workers should still be paying the prison the going wage. And there should be enough oversight (which there isn’t) so that companies don’t go into running prisons because it is profitable, unless the benefits to the prisoners are even greater. It’s not simple, but that doesn’t mean that the costs of housing inmates should be completely ignored either.

              1. MegEB*

                Except comparing your government work program to prison is not really an accurate analogy. Prisoners are the literal definition of a captive audience – they can’t choose to leave if they don’t like the accommodations, it’s not like a job where they can look for another one if this one doesn’t suit them. And prison populations are one of the most exploited, vulnerable populations in the country, who are on the receiving end of an extremely strict power dynamic. It often isn’t as simple as saying “No, I’d rather not do that job.” There are consequences – harsh ones – for prisoners who don’t do what the prison administration wants them to do.

                You also noted that your final take home pay was less than minimum wage. When I was a teen, I worked as a summer camp counselor, where I had a similar situation. Room and board was taken out of my paycheck, so my final pay ended up being less than minimum wage. But oftentimes with prison jobs, they’re not being paid minimum wage to begin with, and then the housing costs are taken out on top of that, leaving them with nothing.

                1. Treena*

                  And to add to that, prisoners should not be paying their room and board at all! We as a society have decided (rightly or wrongly) that it is worth the cost of paying to keep them incarcerated instead of them living out in society. That means we (taxpayers) pay for that.

                  The inmates job, theoretically, should be focusing on not coming back. Which means things like working for a fair wage, and access to free services that will help them succeed on the outside, namely things like education and *good* counseling.

              2. Oryx*

                I can’t speak for all prisons and systems, but our prisoners didn’t have a Get Out of Job Free card. They were assigned a job within their first week.

            2. Specialk9*

              Exactly. Prison is the punishment for the crime, paid for by taxpayers to try to keep society safer, in theory. Imprisoning people and then charging them for their awful accommodations is shameful, Industrial Revolution kind of terrible practice.

          2. Basiorana*

            Then the state should not have to pay as much. The money should go to the inmates, their victims, or the taxpayers, not private companies.

          3. Ad Astra*

            We don’t take anyone else’s expenses (or lack therof) into account when determining their wage, so why do that to prisoners? Upper-middle class teenagers who live rent-free and drive parent-supplied cars using parent-paid gas cards still earn minimum wage. And people who have 10 special-needs children at home to support don’t make any more money just because they might need it more.

            Also, I’m pretty sure most inmates would be happy to give up that “free” housing and medical care in exchange for, y’know, their freedom.

      2. anon for this one*

        Same thing with sheltered workshops. There they are told if they earn too much money they will lose their free money. As if they suddenly shed their disability with a higher but not sustainable (life supporting) income.

    4. Dynamic Beige*

      one of my former carpool partners used to manage a call center there, staffed by inmates

      This was a Law & Order plot point many years ago. Woman was being stalked by an inmate because she bought stuff through call centres that were being staffed with prison inmates.

    1. Isabel*

      Yes, I love this. I said, “Ooooh!” out loud when I saw the post’s title.

      I wonder if all long-term prisons in this country have libraries. I am afraid to look up the answer. Reading material has to be the only thing keeping some incarcerated people sane. It would be for me.

      1. Bostonian*

        I read an article recently about solitary confinement, and while there was a lot of horrible stuff in there, the fact that prisoners in solitary are denied reading material (at least in some prisons) kind of stuck with me as especially horrifying, even though it’s a pretty minor thing on the overall scale of badness of solitary confinement.

        1. OhNo*

          Good god, that is horrifying. No outside contact AND nothing to do all day? My knowledge of prisons is pretty much nonexistent, but it seems like denying reading material to someone in solitary confinement is just asking for them to have a mental break.

          1. Father Ribs*

            There’s an episode of 30 Days with Martin Spurlock which he spends time in prison. Even though it appears to be a low-security, I would seriously worry for my mental health being stuck there.

    2. BRR*

      I haven’t listened to it but slate has a podcast where they interview people about their jobs for those who crave more .

  3. Bowserkitty*

    Echoing the others – what a fascinating read!!

    I know it’s fiction, but shows like OITNB have really helped me realize that convicts are human too, as silly as it sounds. Thanks to The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight I’ve had my eyes opened even more and can’t believe just how ridiculous some of the sentences (and the jail system as a whole) are.

    1. kristinyc*

      I was totally thinking about Taystee while reading this!

      OP, I’d love to hear if you watch OITNB and how realistic you think it is. (I know Piper Kerman is involved with the show, and I know the show takes liberties, but it would be interesting to hear from you!)

      1. Oryx*

        I do, I’m a big fan of OITNB and find pockets of it to be realistic. The chapel, for instance, being the hot spot for sex is totally a thing. The scene in the first or second episode, with the chits and using those to check out tools, also a thing although our prisoners didn’t have those — but employees had chits for tools, prisoners used their name badges, but it was the same sort of thing.

        I worked with men, so I can’t comment on the realities of a woman’s prison.

    2. MegEB*

      I think OINTB has done a lot to bring awareness to the plight of prisoners in the US and how often they’re exploited. Prison reform is something I’m pretty passionate about, and it’s frustrating to hear people dismiss abuse and exploitation because “they’re just criminals”. Our society is extremely adept at dehumanizing criminals, and it’s important to remember that they’re still people and deserve basic rights. And the vast majority of prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes anyway.

    3. Mimmy*

      We watch Last Week Tonight also – I bet you’re referring to their recent story about the minimum sentencing requirements for drug crimes? It’s crazy.

      1. Bowserkitty*

        YES. I was appalled (as I seem to be with most of the topics he has). I love that he helps bring these issues to light. I’d say that was definitely one of the episodes that left the most impact on me though. I just don’t know how I could even begin to help and I dislike that…

        1. Mimmy*

          I’ve gained a better understanding about some of the recent social issues just in watching his show because he explains things clearly and gets right to the point.

          1. Specialk9*

            Yeah. John Oliver is one of the most extensively researched shows, and while he’s broadly liberal, he is just as happy to take up the plight of predominately conservative white chicken farmers as any other topic. It’s one of the few truly compassionate shows out there.

    4. Broke Law Student*

      Thanks for saying this! I’m interested in prison reform/abolition work and currently work with prisoners through my law school, and I feel like we will never change the system as long as the public as a whole sees prisoners as criminals first and human beings second, if at all.

  4. JL*

    This was fascinating, thank you so much. I second (third) the call for more interviews – both Really Uncommon Jobs, but also Regular Jobs. It’d be lovely to hear job stories for when things go right (which probably is most of the time).

    1. Mabel*

      I agree! These interviews are so interesting, and it would be great to see more on all sorts of jobs/positions.

    2. Isabel*

      I agree! My favorite thing about this site is learning about the “mundane” details of “regular” jobs. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the the challenges – professional and emotional – everyone faces at work.

  5. Narmowen*

    Very interesting! I was almost a prison librarian (I have my BS in Criminal Justice and my MLIS) but instead am the Assistant Director of a small town, rural public library.

    1. OhNo*

      Funny, I hear that “I was almost a prison librarian” from a lot of librarians! I even considered applying to several prison library jobs right after I graduated with my MLIS – there were several open in my area – but after talking to some people who had worked in prison, it sounded like it was pretty stressful and not something a lot of people do long term.

      Oryx, if you don’t mind me asking, how long did you work there?

        1. Grad Student*

          Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Oryx and thanks to Alison for asking awesome questions!

          Oryx, would you have liked to continue there? Would you want to work at a different prison library?

  6. Guera*

    This was fascinating! I agree and could read it a couple times more. BUT Alison; are you really going to mention you have civil disobedience in your background and not tell us why? That sounds like a good story too!

    1. Dean*

      Alison’s explained it in previous posts, including one recently. It was her job at one point. See the comments to October 20th post on walking out of s horrible job interview for info (and a photo of her being arrested).

    2. louise*

      In the past, she has shared a photo of her protesting days! If I recall, that’s what it was related to. Now I feel like a stalker.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In my early 20s, I worked in campaigns for an animal protection organization that often used civil disobedience to get animal abuse issues covered by the media (it was a sure-fire way to get coverage not just of the arrests, but of the actual issues we were protesting). My employer was fond of media stunts, some of which resulted in police intervention. Most of the time, they just detained us and then let us go. I did get to spend one very boring night in D.C. central lock-up though, before being released without charges the next day.

      1. louise*

        Out of curiosity, if you’d known then that “having a record” (such a tame one, and for a good reason) would disqualify you from teaching at a jail in the future, would you have still done it?

          1. Little Teapot*

            That’s really interesting – has it stopped you from doing anything else? Are you still glad you did it even though you now have a record? Surely no job is worth having a record for…

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Nope, it hasn’t been an issue with anything else. And I am very glad I did it. It wasn’t for the job; it was to speak out for a cause I believed in (which was the reason I had that job in the first place).

              Many things are worth having a record for! There’s a long history in our world of principled civil disobedience — saying “this is important enough that I’m going to stand up for what’s right, and I will take the consequences.”

              1. FarFromBreton*

                I was already a huge fan of you & Ask A Manager, but as someone whose job/work includes civil disobedience (haven’t been arrested yet, but have done jail support), learning that you have a proud arrest record makes me like you even more. I do often wonder what doors have closed because of the work I’ve already done and what others would if I got arrested. It’s tricky math and I think pretty hard to convey to people who don’t don’t do any civil disobedience (which is part of why getting arrested for a cause can be an effective tactic!).

  7. the_scientist*

    This is super interesting! It also makes me really happy that the library could be a “safe space” of sorts for the people serving time there.

    1. JMegan*

      The safe space is a big thing in libraries, if I remember correctly (from my mumble-years-ago MLS degree.) Public libraries especially, of course, since they’re taxpayer funded, but most libraries have some degree of “equality of access” as part of their stated goals. Information is for everybody, regardless of your income, spoken language, fluency, etc.

  8. V*

    Fascinating! Thank you both for the thoughtful questions and thoughtful answers.

    I am another who would love to see more of these interviews on AAM. I often think about your interview with the receptionist at a brothel – she had amazing client management skills – which was also fascinating.

  9. Kerry (Like The County In Ireland)*

    Because I’ve done work in this area: was it a state-run or a privately run prison? And was the position actually billed as “librarian” or “Library Aide?”

    1. Oryx*

      Privately run, though about a year after I left it reverted back to the state. The title I can’t remember, though they required an MLIS.

  10. Mallory Janis Ian*

    Yes! I was hoping for this when I saw Oryx’s comment on that thread. I recently read “Running the Books” by Avi Steinberg, which is his account of his time as a prison librarian. He was good folks, too.

    1. Oryx*

      I actually didn’t enjoy Running the Books, only because it came out about a month after I left and reading it, there were just certain choices he made that would have been very much against the safety and security of the prison. (Of course, that was several years ago and I can’t remember specifics.) Nothing super egregious, but enough that I would have been fired for doing some of the things he did.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Yeah, I thought he made some emotion-driven stupid choices that had to do with his being a young person who had drifted into the job when he was sort of at loose ends in his life and with himself. He still came across as a pretty good guy, just not super conscientious in an environment when he should have been more so.

  11. SL #2*

    This was fascinating to read. Thank you Alison for setting this up, and thank you Oryx for taking time to answer the questions!

    I remember a volunteer club on my college campus that taught classes at San Quentin a couple times a month. San Quentin also has The Last Mile, a technology and entrepreneurship program for inmates run by some Silicon Valley venture capitalists. There is so much that’s so wrong with our prison system and there’s resistance against changing any part of it, even prison education (or lack of it) but stuff like that and what Oryx does is a step in the right direction.

    1. OriginalEmma*

      I hope I’m thinking of the right program but I was listening to a piece on NPR about this San Quentin (I believe) inmate who turned out to be ridiculously good at personal finance, the stock market, etc. He went from being functionally illiterate to teaching his fellow inmates about personal finance (both for their families on the outside currently and themselves when they were released). I wonder if it was the same program as The Last Mile.

      1. SL #2*

        I did a Google search for this NPR article and it doesn’t seem like he was part of any program, just did it out of natural curiosity and a desire to earn money while he was in San Quentin. That’s even more impressive, that he wasn’t in a formal education program yet still managed to do this!

        There was also an article in the NYT recently about a non-profit in Los Angeles where former inmates go and pick up recently released inmates on their day of release, take them to get necessities (clothes and toiletries come to mind), get a good meal, and then drive them to their shelter or halfway house at the end of the day. I’ll include the link separately so this entire comment doesn’t get lost in moderation. I can’t lie, I got a little emotional at the part about Starbucks…

  12. Dr. Doll*

    Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much, Oryx. I really appreciate your balance of compassion and common sense. I’m sure the inmates remember you and at least a couple of them think “Would Oryx approve? …Okay, I won’t,” every now and then.

  13. onnellinen*

    Very enjoyable interview, with some interesting insights! It reminded me of the book “Gig” (link to follow), which was a bunch of interviews with people about their jobs. Very wide range of jobs represented, and an equally interesting and compelling read – I think a lot of folks here would enjoy it!

  14. insert pun here*

    And if you’re trying to get rid of books, you can donate them to prisons (link in reply.) There are some restrictions which vary by institution so be sure to read the fine print.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Oh God, thank you. I have so many books and I need to cull some of them. The thrift stores won’t take them because they get too many. I might pass this on to them as well.

      2. SL #2*

        Thank you! I tend to donate to my library’s used bookstore, but I have a bag of old SAT and AP workbooks (circa 2009) that they won’t take… maybe they’ll go to one of the California projects on the list!

      3. Bailey Quarters*

        I posted a link to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which does the same for prisons in the Appalachian region. If the link doesn’t appear, you can google the name. Great folks doing great work.

    1. cuppa*

      Yes! Especially if you have books that would appeal to men (or teen males in juvenile detention centers). It’s underrepresented in books, especially with the restrictions and guidelines that apply to donations.

  15. some1*

    Apparently I watch way too many true crime shows because I thought it was common knowledge that inappropriate relationships between prison employees and inmates were fairly common.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      It’s not just true crime shows–look at all the coverage on the escaped convicts in Northern New York last spring. They got out because they’d developed enough of a relationship with a prison worker to get that person to help them.

    2. Oryx*

      Ha, I must have been very naive. That or I didn’t anticipate HOW common. I was there a little less than 2 years — the woman before me, 4 while I was there, one right after I left.

  16. Jerzy*

    Thank you for this. As someone who works in workforce development, re-entry programs are too few and far between, and not a lot of effort is put into making them better. The argument is normally that we shouldn’t offer too much help to ex-cons when people who have never been to jail don’t get free education or job assistance. My answer to that is: It should be available to everyone who needs it and is willing to work for what they get.

    1. Oryx*

      Agreed, and by not offering assistance or help it turns into a self perpetuating cycle because they don’t have (or don’t think they have) any other options.

    2. Need to be anon*

      My dad was actually released from prison a couple of weeks ago. His going to prison in the first place was a monumental shock and he had much more external support than most inmates. Before his release, a friend got him a job but it was across the state line. My mother was talking to his PRC officer who said he may not approve out of state travel and “employment is not a priority”. Really? We wonder why recidivism rates are high.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This type of thing needs to be made general knowledge. I am willing to bet that most people would not be in favor of a system like this.

      2. SL #2*

        So what’s the real priority, then? Making sure recidivism rates stay high so the prison-industrial complex keeps chugging along, right?

  17. Cattitude*

    What a great read.
    Thank you Oryx for sharing!
    I also would like to read more interviews like this.

  18. My 2 Cents*

    Question for Oryx:

    How does your time as a prison librarian help or hurt you when it comes to finding new jobs? Obviously I assume people are intrigued to talk about it in interviews but generally do you think the experience is a plus on your resume or do you think it has held you back in your career?

    1. Oryx*

      I think it’s a plus — for one thing, because I was the only librarian I did everything, gaining experience that very few librarians get in their first professional job. When I switched to academia I was able to transfer my skills easily.

      Plus, I really think the novelty of having worked in a prison just appeals to a lot of people so it’s always a good conversation point in an interview.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Plus, if you can handle working in a prison environment, dealing with faculty foibles is probably a breeze. (although obviously there’s not as much authority over them in the second case..)

        1. Oryx*

          It’s funny, because I worked at a career & technical college and was originally at our one campus that was in a fairly suburban area. Then we got moved to our other campus which was more urban, lower socio-economic part of the city. Some of my co-workers were honestly scared at the prospect of making the move and would say to me, “Oh, you used to work in a prison. You’ll be fine.” (Insert eye roll.)

  19. Finny*

    Thank you. My father was in prison in Colorado for a few years when I was a kid, and I know the books, the library, and the librarian were the only things keeping him sane. So, on his behalf as well as my own, thank you.

  20. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Oryx, were there trends in what types of books were most popular? Did any reading requests surprise you? And could prisoners request books you didn’t have?

    1. Oryx*

      Most popular:
      James Patterson, Tom Clancy, John Grisham
      Left Behind Series

      “Romance” books (Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, etc.) — about as close to porn as they could get. It was mostly the inmates in seg who would ask, although to be honest I’m fairly certain about 1/3 only asked to see if they could make me uncomfortable (I’d just kind of roll my eyes when they were like “You know the books I mean, wink wink.”)

      And yes, they could request books we didn’t have. We had an interlibrary loan arrangement with our state library. We could only go through the state for ILL requests, though, because of safety concerns (like someone on the outside sneaking contraband through the book). The ILL system was kind of a mess when I arrived and had been out of commission for awhile so overhauling that and introducing a new process was one of the things I did while I was there.

      1. MegEB*

        The Left Behind series was the most popular? That’s REALLY interesting, I wouldn’t have expected it. Did you have a lot of fundamentalist Christians in the prison? I swear I’m not being sarcastic, I just wouldn’t have thought a series about the Rapture would be popular in a men’s prison.

        1. Krystal*

          I honestly wasn’t that surprised to see it – in evangelical Christianity, just asking God to forgive you absolves you of all of the bad things you’ve done in your life. I can see how that would be extremely appealing to these folks.

        2. Oryx*

          I think a lot undergo religious conversion or get more in tune with their religion while in prison. Ironically, the books got stolen often. Seems they maybe missed that Commandment?

      2. LBK*

        The reasoning makes sense, but it still cracks me up to think about a bunch of male prisoners reading Danielle Steel. That is not the demographic I usually picture when I think of her books.

    2. cataloger*

      A colleague who worked in a public library said they regularly received interlibrary loan requests from a nearby prison, and had restrictions on what types of books they could send them.

  21. Folklorist*

    Thanks for this! I’ve had a huge stack of books that I’d set aside to donate to prisons for a while. This has inspired me to get off my butt and do it this weekend. :-)

  22. Stephanie*

    Oryx, you said you worked for a for-profit prison, right? How do you think the job would have differed if it were a state-run institution?

    1. Oryx*

      I did, yes, although the prison is now run by the state. From what I’ve heard, though, from co-workers who were hired on after the transfer, they have added more programming to the prison as a whole, which makes me happy. So maybe there would have been more support and focus on programming and re-entry than what we had.

      Other than that, I can’t really say since I don’t know what it’s like working for the state. I did attend biannual conferences with all the prison librarians in my state and we all pretty much had the same concerns, issues, stories, etc. The overall operation of the prison would have probably been different, but I don’t know how much the library would (or did) change.

  23. The Other Dawn*

    I find this so fascinating, mostly because my brother was in a maximum security prison for 30 years. He’s been out for about 10 years and is doing extremely well, thankfully, but it’s so true what Oryx says: many people are repeat offenders and they end up in and out of prison their whole lives.

    When my brother was in prison I used to send him a big shipment of used books several times a year. I’d pick them up at used book stores for a couple bucks, fill up a box, and ship them off. He was quite popular on days when the books arrived. Some prisons he was in (he was transferred several times) didn’t have work programs, so inmates didn’t have much to do other than work out or read. He always told me that they all were so appreciative and wanted him to thank me for them. It made me feel good that I was helping them in some small way.

    I just want to say thank to you Oryx for treating the inmates like human beings and making the library a place where they can once again feel normal, or as close to normal as they can in that environment.

    1. Oryx*

      I did have some inmates who came to the library and checked out a bunch of books specifically because if they were reading or were at the library, it means they weren’t getting into trouble within the prison. It was a safeguard of sorts.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Exactly. I always amazed me to hear my brother’s stories of what inmates did to keep busy so they wouldn’t get into trouble. I often think I’d love to write a book about my brother’s life; however, I’m not sure I could deal with knowing in great detail everything my brother had to deal with. I guess that’s selfish, but I think it would torture me.

    2. I'm a Little Teapot*

      My brother recently got out of prison, and books were one of the most important things to him in there. He started teaching himself foreign languages and ancient history and writing science fiction stories. So thank you from me as well.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I find it interesting that now that my brother is out, he hardly ever reads. And he loves to read. I often wonder if reading reminds him of being on the inside, or he’s just occupied now and doesn’t have a lot of time for it.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      I’ve sent books to young adults in our local jail (not prison), and they didn’t allow me to buy the book and mail it. I had to order it online and have it sent directly to the person from the bookseller. My understanding is that was their way of keeping contraband out. So any used books I had were forbidden.

      I’m guessing that since Oryx is recommending donating used books that 1) prisons and jails work differently or 2) they’ve got a better scanning process for potential contraband in donated books or 3) undirected contraband is ineffective and not something to worry about the way a book to a specific inmate would be.

      1. Oryx*

        There are companies that the prison will work with directly that handles that or it will go through a scanning process. When I got donations, it had to go through security first so it could take awhile for the books to get to the library after they arrived at the prison. It wasn’t a high priority for them, so I’d sort of have to bug them about it.

      2. Bailey Quarters*

        The not-for-profit that I’m familiar with (Appalachian Prison Book Project) works with the prisons to make sure that anything they send complies with policies (no hardbacks to prisons that don’t allow it, appropriate subject matter, etc.) of the individual prisons. I’d imagine contraband search is part of that too.

  24. Elizabeth West*

    This is FASCINATING. Thank you, Oryx!

    We have a federal inmate medical facility where I live. It’s a hospital and also has minimum security prisoners (and max). Way back when I became a criminology major, my Intro to Crim class adjunct instructor (he’s passed on, sadly), who worked in alternative sentencing, took us on a tour of the facility. That was really interesting. At one point, he took us into the rec area. Our class was mostly women, and we got a HUGE reaction. There was dead silence for a second, and then this loud roar: “WHOOOOOOOAAAAA!!!” and we were like, “Jack? Jack!? Can we leave now? JACK?!?!” He was so casual–“Hi guys! This is my class!”

    We also got to see the ward where the mentally ill inmates are housed, men who are dangerous to both themselves and others. It’s where they’d keep Hannibal Lecter if he were in there. Very secure; very depressing. They had a TV on in there all the time so they had something to focus on and wouldn’t retreat into catatonia. I remember seeing someone sitting by a cell door helping an inmate with a lesson. Or perhaps it was occupational therapy.

    I honestly don’t recall if we saw a library, though I’m sure they have one. The minimum security inmates had dormitory pods very much like the ones with the low walls on OITNB. Before going in, they advised us to be aware of security or medical emergencies–if anything happened, we were to flatten ourselves against the wall and stay there, out of the way. Guards or medical personnel would knock us down if they had to, not even joking.

    I was planning the sequel to the bank robber book, part of which is set in a federal prison based loosely on this one. An employee and the BOP website were quite helpful. I want to hit it as soon as I’m done with Secret Book via NaNoWriMo.

    Oryx, may I contact you if I have questions? (It’s okay if you don’t want to.) My email is on my blog (the link on my name). Thank you again for sharing your story. :)

    1. Oryx*

      The mentally ill, yes. We had inmates who would end up watch after trying to harm themselves. For 24 hours a day there had to be a CO watching them, writing down anything the inmate said or did. It was hard to watch.

      Absolutely! My background is in creative writing so I’m always happy to help another writer so I’ll be sure to email you :)

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I felt badly for them. They really had no hope of ever getting out and having a normal life–they would either be in prison or care for the rest of their lives. And I’m sure they did some awful things, but they were so ill. There’s no easy answer for them. :(

        Thank you! I appreciate any help I can get! :)

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Hahah, I wish you could! I’m going to double down on querying so maybe I’ll get a bite. I’ve been thinking about self-pubbing a smaller story, but I don’t have anything that isn’t novel-length at the moment. There are some links to stories on my blog at the Read Me page.

  25. Oryx*

    I just wanted to thank Alison for interviewing me — I can talk for hours and hours on the subject and can be quite verbose (you guys got the condensed version of the interview!) so please feel free to ask questions you might have :)

    1. Dewey Finn*

      This piece was great, and it sounds like you were really good at your job:) Your compassion and decency is obvious in your remarks, and I really appreciated hearing about a world that I will (hopefully) never experience otherwise.

  26. Barefoot Librarian*

    Thank you for doing this interview! Fun fact: I actually decided to becoming a librarian after listening to an NPR story about a prison library. :)

    1. Bio-Pharma*

      Glad someone mentioned the NPR story (this American life, I believe). Oryx, did you experience the passing of notes in books, as the NPR story describes?

  27. Captain Carrot*

    That line of work has prose and cons.

    Seriously though, a great read. Thanks for sharing.

  28. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Per the discussion above, here are the pieces from the interview that I cut for length:

    Q. I’m intrigued that they didn’t mention in the ad that the job was at a prison, since I’d think that the fact that it was at a prison had a huge impact on the nature of the work you’d be doing. Were you annoyed when you realized they hadn’t been up-front about that? And why do you think they chose to do it that way?

    A. I don’t know if it was intentional or I was just incredibly naive. So, I applied for a job at the (redacted) Correctional Treatment Facility — treatment facility because of the strong substance abuse program. The correctional should have given it away but I think that was the only indicator and unless you really knew, a word like “correctional” didn’t have any context in my world. Prison and jail I know, but beyond that nothing. Plus, I also had a friend who worked at (redacted) Behavioral Center that was mental health related so when I applied my thought process was that it was actually related to that place. But nothing in the ad talked about inmates and anything related to security that might have come up I incorrectly assumed was related to patients since I thought I was applying to somewhere else entirely.

    I wasn’t annoyed, because, again, I don’t know if it was intentional or my nativity misreading the ad. I was more startled than anything else. Prison libraries weren’t discussed in my MLIS program, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I also didn’t tell my parents about it until after the interview because I wanted to be able to give them a whole picture of what it was like. (To that end, my mom was terrified pretty much every day I worked there while my dad thought it was the coolest thing ever.)

    Q. Did you have days where your job felt not all that different from other library work you’ve done? Or did the prison pretty much always color the nature of the work?

    A. Honestly, most days felt like a normal library. People would always ask what it was like and I tell them it was pretty boring. I think a lot of that is traced back to it being the one place at the camp the felt like it was “outside” and the inmates didn’t want to disrupt that sense of peace or have it taken away.

    That said, the fact that I was in the prison was never far. Like with the guys masturbating in the library (although, to be fair, that happens in public libraries, too). Or once I went to the seg unit and an inmate I had plenty of interaction with was in the medical unit because he’d snuck in an ink pen and given himself a tattoo that got infected. Another time, a whole bunch of inmates were drunk off hooch they’d made in the dorms. They brought drug dogs into the library once to sniff and another time we had to lock down the entire facility for several hours because a co-worker lost his keys.

    I think the fact that there was never a guard in there with me helped that feeling, too. The only time I did ever have a guard assigned to the library was the two week period after I broke my elbow. My arm was in a splint and I wore a sling. The day I came back after the accident the second in command wanted to talk to me and there were two rules: 1) because I was down an arm, there would be a guard in the library with me until the splint came off and 2) I was never, ever, under any circumstances, allowed to wear the sling around the inmates. The fear was that an inmate could grab the sling and pull it and choke me. (Inmates who broke arms got breakaway slings.)


    second part of answer to the question in the post about power and control:

    That said, inmates didn’t take kindly to COs who were clearly power hungry, mostly because those attitudes are often fear-based and the inmates can smell that and will take advantage. They had far more respect for those employees who also respected them or at least tried to meet them on their level instead of coming in like gangbusters. Other COs also didn’t like dealing with the more arrogant employees who believed they were magically above the inmates just because we weren’t in prison.

    I should say, though, that I wasn’t always able to take the high road. We had this one inmate who was in on a domestic violence charge and it was clear that he did not like having to listen to a woman and he was always a problem patron. The kind of patron where I had to post signs up saying Don’t Do X because he would always do X and ignore the rules. He also had, well, conned the warden into allowing him some kind of special privileges that no other inmate had. The computers were strictly only supposed to be for legal work but he had talked his way into being allowed to type up his novel or whatever on there and because it came from the warden, I couldn’t do anything about it. So, of course, this inmate thought he was hot shit because he had the warden in his pocket. So this one day he wanted something notarized and it was the one day I didn’t notarize and I said no, he’d have to come back tomorrow. He refused to take no for an answer. I had a co-worker in the education department who would notarize when she worked in the library on Mondays, it was the only day she did it. He was going to go next door. I knew that he wouldn’t listen to me no matter what, so I specifically told him “Do not go next door and ask Sansa to notarize for you.” Well, of course, he did and I being a bit petty wrote him up for disobeying a direct order. When he found that out, he called me a bitch. I wrote him up again and got him temporarily suspended from the library.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      They had far more respect for those employees who also respected them or at least tried to meet them on their level instead of coming in like gangbusters.

      I heard this a lot from our adjunct instructors in the Crim department at uni–they were often retired cops, attorneys (my homicide class was taught by a judge and former prosecutor), etc. because they wanted us to learn from people in the field. My favorite instructor helped me with an interrogation scene in Rose’s Hostage. He said the same–basically that if you treat people like people and not like vermin, you get a lot more cooperation from them. The system is dehumanizing enough, and they expect authority figures to be assholes.

    2. Stephanie*

      My old (female) supervisor was a prison guard at our state’s men’s maximum security facility. She also said that inmates responded better to decent treatment versus power trips and that most were just trying to do their time and get out.

    3. cuppa*

      The sling part is interesting. We got breakaway lanyards for our nametags a few years ago so people can’t grab them, but I never thought about slings!

  29. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    Oryx, thank you so much! This is fascinating!

    Aside from donating books to prisons as mentioned above, is there anything else you’d recommend that an average citizen could do to help out with prisons and the issues with our system?

    1. The Other Dawn*

      As someone whose had a family member on the inside for 30+ years, I’d say one of the biggest things you can do is to treat inmates and former inmates as human beings and give them a chance. So many of them are actually good people who got mixed up in drugs and the criminal life and, as Oryx said, got stuck in the cycle because of a lack of options. And if you know someone on the inside, visit them. When we went to visit my brother, guards were always telling us that most inmates don’t get visits from their own family. Visits go a long way towards preventing repeat offenses. It keeps them connected to their families and gives them something to work towards.

      I know you were probably asking more about volunteering or something bigger, but that’s my little piece of advice.

    2. Treena*

      I read the Marshall Project, which a non-profit news source about prison issues. I have them liked on Facebook, and they’ve taught me so much about much-needed criminal reform. I also donate money to the Innocence Project, but there are others like Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

  30. Rose*

    Thanks for the fantastic interview. It was so interesting to hear her perspective. And I definitely agree with drug decriminalization, the need for more education opportunities, and mental health care for inmates.

  31. University Girl*

    I tried to apply for a position at a prison local to my grad school while I was pursuing my MLS. Someone who currently worked at the prison came in to where I worked, spoke with my manager who mentioned me and what I was going to school for, and the woman gave her the details if I was interested. I called the next day, but got the run around about there not being a position and then that there was a position, but they weren’t authorized to fill it in a such a way.

  32. SCW*

    Thank you for the interview! I work in a library system where we have a branch in the county jail, and it is interesting to see how different your prison library functions. The Jail library here is not open to most inmates, though they have trustee women inmates work sometimes in it. Rather it is a room in the jail stuffed full of books and the inmates get to request books and research every two weeks, and the staff deliver the books requested to the different areas of the jail and they are handed out to the prisoners. They can also request genres or length of books–I’ve heard that some just request the longest books we have so they’ll last the whole time.

    So the staff have very little contact with the inmates in that way. They are not allowed to circulate any hardbound books, so the manager will convert popular books to softbound so they can have them. One of the things I thought was interesting when I went to visit is that all of the books have to be carefully checked when they are returned for contraband and messages being passed. When I went for a tour I asked about issues with damage to books and behavior problems, and the manager said they have fewer issues with either than at a regular branch, because the inmates do not want to lose their borrowing privileges. Since the guards are always around, they don’t have to deal with any behavior issues at all–and if someone damages a book they wont get to check out after a warning or so. We do have a budget, and we send our extra books to the jail as well, but they are well loved and mended to get the most out of them. Horror is really popular, as are religious, and non-fiction books. The manager does teach some classes and runs bookclubs with the inmates, but under supervised conditions.

    I think it could be super rewarding work, but dealing with the bureaucracy of the prison and the intensely claustrophobic prison library would kill me.

  33. Mimmy*

    This was a very fascinating read. Thank you to Oryx for sharing your experiences and to Alison for posting!

    Just a note about re-entry: An agency in my county has a program where a small team of volunteer “navigators” begin to work with a given inmate prior to release, then continues for a period after the release (I forget how long). In a nutshell, they work to get the prisoner connected to resources and to facilitate their support networks. Some of the navigators are former inmates themselves, which I think adds to the value. It’s a really neat program.

    1. Oryx*

      Oh, I like this idea. That was one of the questions that I got a lot, asking for information related to resources like halfway houses and setting up support systems. I’m glad there are programs in action that help with that.

  34. Anon for this*

    My brother is in prison and books are the only thing that we can send him (although we can’t send them directly…we have to order from Barnes and Noble and they get delivered). He was never much of a reader and I was an English major so I’ve taken the opportunity to send him a lot of great stuff I would have never been able to get him to read otherwise. He’s so bored he’ll read whatever you give him. Fun fact: he’s on a prison softball team and when I asked him if the prison let them have bats he said “Don’t worry, it’s on a chain.”

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Years ago we used to be able to send big boxes of used books to my brother, but towards the end of his sentence they changed the rules. Books had to come directly from the store. I’m guessing they found that senders were sneaking contraband into the prison that way; according to my brother there’s no end to the creativity of both the inmates and their connections on the outside.

      1. Oryx*

        “According to my brother there’s no end to the creativity of both the inmates and their connections on the outside.”

        There’s a lot to be said about their creativity, that’s for sure!

        I think our inmates all had to receive books directly from the store, too, for the same reason. But even then, I think it’s wonderful that you sent books to your brother. I have no doubt he really appreciated them.

        1. Anon for this*

          Yeah, he’s actually super popular because my entire family sends him stuff throughout the year, but especially at Christmas and on his birthday. He probably only reads the books once so after he’s finished he lends them out to the other inmates. Also, in our state when you are transferred between prisons or released you’re not allowed to take the books with you due to security concerns of notes or contraband being passed between facilities so whenever he got moved and the last time he was released (sigh), he donated the books to the prison. I guess the alternative would be that we could come and pick them up but I’d much rather the books go into the library.

  35. Carrie in Scotland*

    Loved this,so interesting and insightful.

    I’d love to see (read!) more interviews in the future.

  36. HannahS*

    This was a great read! It sounds like it’s a really good thing that there are some leadership figures in the prison who aren’t guards.

    That said, what kind of library excludes things that are explicit and violent but is cool with Mein Kampf? That detail struck me as really odd.

    1. Temperance*

      I imagine that there are First Amendment issues at play here. Violent or sexual content can be a security risk.

    2. Worker Bee (Germany)*

      Interesting to me too. No surprise but that book is banned and you ll get in legal trouble if you try to get one here.

  37. Aisling*

    Thank you so much for sharing! Your story is truly fascinating.

    I’m a librarian in a public library, and the “babysitting” comment really resonates. No, we didn’t go to library school to learn how to babysit, but in just about every type of library, that’s exactly what we have to do. In my case, it’s the teenagers that come in after school each day.

  38. Erin*

    I’m sorry I’m late to the party, I don’t know how I missed this post, but question for Oryx if she’s still checking the post: Is there a good program or organization for donating books prison libraries? What sort of restrictions are there on books that can be donated?

    1. Erin*

      (I recognize you touched upon some of this in the interview and comments, but if you have any additional details or a specific organization you’d recommend that gets books to prisoners I’d love to hear about it. :))

  39. Tim*

    I think a similar interview with a prison librarian was on another blog, if anyone wants further insight. I think it was INALJ if I am not mistaken.

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