by Ashley Collins, courtesy of Naples Daily News
Through the front doors of the Naples (FL) Jail Center and up the second floor past the sleeping quarters, a couple of inmates spend most days organizing thousands of books in a library-like room.
The inmate librarians — part of a workforce program with the Collier County Sheriff's Office — order the books on shelves based on the Dewey Decimal System and then administer them to other inmates, or library patrons, throughout the day.
The genres range from self-help, romance and mystery to best-sellers written by James Patterson and Stephen King. "The library is one more aspect that helps educate inmates, but also gives them some normalcy from the outside world," said Tanya Williams, Collier County Public Library director.
Since the 1980s, the Collier County Public Library has partnered with the Sheriff's Office to provide a library at both the Naples and Immokalee jail centers.
But over the years, jail staff noticed that many of the books were either disappearing or coming back completely destroyed, said Robin Eckenroth, inmate systems bureau manager with the Sheriff's Office. "We never knew how many books we had and we couldn’t track which inmate checked out what book," Eckenroth said.
In order to manage collections better and enforce accountability, staff from the Naples Jail Center recently implemented the same software employed across the county's 10 library branches into its own library.
Which means that inmates who check out books are considered library patrons and the jail library, an outreach branch. "Once the (inmates) are transitioned into civilian life they can visit any of our 10 libraries and present their identification and update their records like any other patron," Williams said.
The new system links an inmate’s books, while at the jail, to his or her identification number. "If a book goes missing now, we can take disciplinary action," Eckenroth said.
Inmates can receive fines or notices if a book is lost or damaged.
The transition to the new system was a team effort, said Carey Hunt, the Collier County Public Library's head of technical services. She led the transition in the Naples jail and hopes to do the same for the Immokalee locale by mid-September.
"All the Collier County library staff and volunteers jumped in to help. It was a big project," Hunt said. It took about 30 employees working long hours in May to catalog and process books and create accounts for inmates.
Of the 5,000 books in the Naples collection, only about half were good enough to use. Many had to be thrown away, Hunt said. "We plan to continue to add to both libraries collections," Hunt added.
Every year, the library and jail put aside money to benefit the two libraries. However, Hunt said they're always looking for book donations from the community.