The life and death of a small jail library

Discarded books in an abandoned Russian school

I didn’t really care about the books. Books are easy to come by, and after a couple years of seeing what stayed on the shelves and what kept disappearing, I knew exactly what titles and which authors I needed to keep library patrons coming back to the library. What I cared about was having helped to build something important, at least to a few people, and having tried to make a space where people who wanted to read had the books they wanted. And then, almost before I had a chance to realize what was happening, it was gone.

I moved to Philadelphia in 2015 to start a job as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a pretty sweet job that takes a lot of work and comes with a lot of privilege. As a way of trying to grapple with that privilege, and also as a means of giving back to a city that I very much wanted to feel like home, I decided to start volunteering at the Philadelphia Prison System.

It took a while, but eventually they set me up as a Library Coordinator at one of the local jails. The library wasn’t much, just a small, windowless room, maybe 8 by 14 feet. There was a desk and a chair and some bookshelves. The door to the library had a window that swung open, which is where I could check books in and out. It isn’t quite right to say that I was starting from scratch — the jail already had a very small lending library, which was at the mercy of constant overturn in the jail. Guys would get work assignments at the library and then a few weeks later they’d be gone, transferred to a different facility or released on parole. Folks could be incarcerated at the jail for months without even knowing there was a lending library for them to use. When I got to the library in the winter of 2015, there were maybe 200 books, many of which were out of date or damaged. Over the next three years, I brought in hundreds of books, and at its peak, the library had nearly a thousand texts and was circulating over 200 books a month.

Before I was an academic, I was a librarian, and my favorite part of volunteering at the jail was getting to handle books again, doing collection development and reader advisory. Although the library was staffed by jail workers, I was the only route for getting books into the library. I set up donation bins at a local coffee shop and fundraisers at local music venues and book stores. Family, friends and co-workers donated books. The folks at Philly AIDS Thrift got to know me and after a while, they took to charging me a flat rate of $10, even when I had $40 or $50 worth of books.

The popular podcast Ear Hustle, which describes life in San Quentin Prison in California, noted with some bewilderment that the most common question they get is about whether incarcerated folks have access to a library. I have a theory that the reason people are so curious about jail and prison libraries is that the library is something familiar that provides a sense of orientation in the midst of what seems like chaos. The contrast between conventional images of a library and conventional images of a jail is sharp, and while those of us who have never been incarcerated struggle to imagine what jail would feel like, we have a much easier time imagining ourselves in a library inside a jail. I get the fascination, but over time I grew uncomfortable with what I began to see as a romanticizing of jail libraries.

People have romantic notions of what incarcerated folks want to read. Over time, I got tired of people donating academic books on critical theory or Notes from underground. However well intentioned, most guys in jail don’t want to read Marx or Dostoevsky, they want to read James Patterson and Dean Koontz. While books by key figures in black history like Obama, Malcolm X and Oprah were pretty popular, their readership paled in comparison to Game of Thrones and the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. I felt absolutely no compulsion to try and steer the reading interests of my patrons. In a context where every element of their lives was supervised and controlled, I had no interest in trying to discipline their reading habits.

People also had romantic notions of my contributions as a volunteer. I probably did too, at the start. I can remember telling someone — months before I actually started at the jail — that I really thought I could make a difference if I could just get this project off the ground. In reality, I was one of many people who volunteered at PPS, and far from the most committed or crucial. Some days I felt like my volunteer work was pointless, that all I was doing was attempting to assuage my white lady guilt by traipsing out to a jail that needed lawyers and counselors more than a book club and a stack of Twilight novels.

Other days, usually the days when I brought in books, I was sure that I was helping, even if it was only a little bit. On days when I got to shelve new books, guys would crowd around the library window, asking me to set things aside for them. “You got that Nicholas Sparks jawn? Hold that one for me!”

I went to jail once a week, spending the morning in the library, checking out books, straightening up the shelves, removing damaged books and bringing back books I’d repaired. In the afternoons, I ran a book club, where I brought in short stories and novels to read and discuss. Book club was where I really got to know some of the guys in jail. Some came out of boredom, just looking for an excuse to get off their blocks for an hour and a half. Some came because they loved to read, and they would sign up month after month, pulling in friends to come with them. We read Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Jamaica Kincaid, Ta-Nehisi Coates. By far the most popular book we read, which I brought in as often as I could source five or six copies, was The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo. I should admit that I couldn’t really get into it (no lady character development!), but in jail they found Coehlo hopeful and inspiring. It’s the only book that every single book club member enjoyed.

Although I have doubts about what incarcerated folks really got out of my volunteer work, their contributions to me were many. Every day I went to jail I confronted my own racism and classism. The first time a corrections officer left me unsupervised in a room with six book club members, I was ashamed at the immediate flare up of fear that came over me. It is a weird and humbling experience to make yourself come to terms with just how much has been given to you. My privilege has never been so pristinely clear to me as when I spent time in jail, knowing that I could come and go whenever I wanted, that even if I were busted for possession of drugs or driving drunk (by far the most common charges that I heard in jail), I would always be able to post bail, I would always be given the benefit of a doubt.

Earlier this summer, after months of speculation, the jail finally closed. The facility was old and in a state of decay, and I’d heard rumors of asbestos and carcinogens. One by one, the blocks were emptied and faster than I would have thought possible, the census dropped from 1200 to 800 to 400 to 200. I was glad the jail was closed but unsure of what it meant for the library I’d worked to build up, week after week and book after book.

The last time I walked out of the jail, I still thought it was possible that I would be able to move the library to a new facility, so the only books I took with me were the ones too damaged to repair, many of which had come back to the library as the jail population dwindled. There were a lot of bibles and books on religion, marked up with notes and marginalia. A very popular book on principles of mathematics had finally resurfaced, its cover torn from the spine and a handful of pages missing. Unlike the library workers, who tended to be fiercely protective of the books, I saw damaged books as a good thing. I am a big believer in the first law of library science — books are for use.

A book repaired by a PPS library worker

I’m grateful for what I learned volunteering at PPS. I’m grateful that my library training gave me the ability to do something concrete in a place that welcomed what I had to offer. I’m grateful to everyone who donated books, even the ones I didn’t take into the jail library collection. I’m grateful to the corrections officers who got to know me and my project — I wish their jobs didn’t exist but I appreciate the ones who were kind. And I’m grateful to all of the library workers, to every single patron at the library, every single book club member who turned up, even if it was just once. I learned so much about how to listen and how to reflect, about Philadelphia and its inequalities, about what a love of books really looks like.

Originally published at