Rikers Island gets unofficial New York Public Library branch

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by Alison Fox, courtesy of AM New York

The (unofficial) 93rd branch of the New York Public Library is now open for business — and you can’t take the subway to visit it.  That’s because the small-but-well-stocked collection is the first permanent public library on Rikers Island.

And the collection, which is housed in the women’s Rose M. Singer Center and sits below a poster of Beyoncé as Rosie the Riveter, is as varied as the people who will be reading from it: “The Hunger Games” books share space with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Les Misérables,” and an extensive James Patterson collection.

“It’s amazing the city services that are available in the community; many of those we want here on the island,” said Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “This is a good step to introduce inmates to the value of education, the value of reading.”

The library holds 1,200 books — spanning everything from comics to sci-fi, from Spanish language works to nonfiction classics — and it will be open every Tuesday for about six hours each day.

Inmates can check out two books for two weeks, with the goal of serving half of the prison one week and the other half the next.  There aren’t many restrictions when it comes to material, which is mostly donated, but hard covers are prohibited, said Emily Jacobson, one of the librarians at the jail.

“We try and build up our collections based on what folks want,” Jacobson said. “If ladies ask for something specific we don’t have, we can go and try and find it or bring in the next best thing.”

This isn’t the library’s first venture into Rikers: they’ve been distributing books there since 1984, circulating more than 22,000 last year alone, said NYPL president Tony Marx. But this goes further than the book cart ever could.

“Everyone is always welcomed at the library. Free books, free use of computers, educational programs,” he said, speaking directly to several of the inmates gathered for the library’s opening Tuesday. “We do not want people locked up. We want everyone — everyone — to have the opportunity to read, to learn, to create, to gain skills and to contribute.”

Men’s facilities have either a mobile book cart service, where the books are brought around, or a standing library, where boxes of books are set out once a week and then packed up.

And while the surroundings outside the library may be full of hard times, the rainbow-colored logos on the door and the neatly organized array of books offer an inviting break for the population.

On Tuesday, authors Rayya Elias (whose memoir, “Harley Loco,” is named after Elias’ nickname from her own time at Rikers) and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat Pray Love”) brought copies of their books to sign and hand out to the women at the prison.

“I know what they deserve,” said Gilbert, who came with her new book, “Big Magic.” “And what they deserve is a peaceful, safe space in which to let their minds expand. But it’s hard to find that when you’re deprived of light and space and peace and the room that we all need to become who we really are.”