To those outside of prison the idea of a library conjures images of rows of books, a helpful librarian, a few computers for research, and even, perhaps, a comfortable chair to plop down into for a nice afternoon of literary exploration. After all, a library is a place where patrons go to learn, explore new ideas, and enjoy those bound collections of printed pages I so affectionately call books.
I can remember frequenting the Brevard, NC public library, the Topeka, Kansas public library, and more than a few school libraries over the years. This wasn’t so much to revel in the written word, but it was true and it was real. Even though I found these locations to be more social arenas — since I had friends who worked at each or went with me to each — all of the libraries reminded me of a nice, quiet place to just sit and enjoy the solitude. They were quiet enclaves where one could grow to be more, where one was surrounded by centuries of knowledge just waiting to be discovered.
There is a reason I look back upon these experiences with a certain sense of nostalgia. This is because libraries in prisons tend to leave a lot to be desired. At the Polk Youth Detention Center in Butner, North Carolina only two people from each housing unit were allowed to go to the library each week. While this was a very nice library for a prison library, it was effectively regulated out of our reach. In a 6-month period of time, I only managed to go twice.
At the Morrison Low Security Prison in Morrison, North Carolina there were actually two libraries. One was in the school building and consisted of a single 20-foot wall of books which, if memory serves me correctly, did not contain any novels and was actually in the middle of a walkway which had a significant amount of traffic. As for the one in my housing unit, I once managed to convince a guard to open it. Inside it resembled a small mop closet. Sadly, no one either knew of it, or if they did, the guards rarely agreed to unlock the door.
At the Sanford Low Security Prison in Sanford, North Carolina there too was a library. It was the size of my current cell: 5 x 9. Here, all four of the walls were filled with books. And all sorts of books at that. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t half bad. At least there was a decent selection of books and inmates were allowed to go to the library on a very regular basis.
Now I reside at FCI Petersburg, a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Here the library is the most impressive I’ve ever seen in my limited experience inside prison. Sadly, the books are behind a counter; an interested participant must select a title from a list of books and authors and ask the clerk to retrieve it. There is no real perusing of texts. Only card catalogs from which to make a selection. The other half of the library contains typewriters (of which a significant number are partially disabled), law library computers, a few LCD screens for movie watching, and a number of tables.
I present brief overviews of each of these libraries to show the striking contrast between them and the image one has of a traditional library. These contrasts are what make prison libraries not centers of learning, but something else. They become either loud centers of congregation and broken equipment (FCI Petersburg), inaccessible and fleeting (Polk), locked and limited (Morrison), or good, but leaving much to be desired (Sanford).
Here at FCI Petersburg, the library is very loud. This is because people generally don’t go there to read or study, but to flirt and carry on with other nefarious activities. I say this not in jest. As I type on the typewriters I regularly make a point of ignoring the other patrons and utilizing ear plugs so that the sting of their yelling is somewhat reduced. Amazingly, this is the rule, not the exception.
This contrast is just ridiculous! It’s unacceptable. There is no reason any student should have to leave the library for lack of a seat because groups of people would prefer to sit there and have loud debate sessions or engage in other activities which one tries not to see. This is not an environment which facilitates learning, studies, or post-prison success. It is a cesspool of irregularity and socially deviant behavior. Something apparently sanctioned by the FCI Petersburg administration.
In order for a library to fulfill its designed purpose it must be managed as libraries outside of prison are. This means the volume must be low, books must be accessible, and the facility must be inviting. The patrons must be managed, to a certain extent. If any of these aspects are missing, the experience is lost and so is the potential learning which could be facilitated through it.
Prison libraries could certainly take a page out of any public or private library outside of prison. If they did, serious patrons — students and educators — would have a sanctuary to learn and grow in. Until then, we’ll just have to endure and fight the good, yet troublesome fight.
Until then, pass the earplugs.