Why prison libraries matter for inmates, jailers and book donors

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by Stephen Dark, courtesy of Deseret News

It's 9.15 a.m. when a dark green, 1993 Toyota truck that's logged 160,000 miles pulls into Tooele County (UT) jail parking lot. A tall, thin woman in khaki cargo pants and a black T-shirt gets out to unload boxes of donated books and cart them into the men’s jail library.

Once the fiction and nonfiction have been mingled with the existing stock, she admires the 1,300 titles.

“I’m into pretty. Pretty books are happy books,” says Toby Lafferty, who then bids the books farewell that October morning. “Bye guys, see you next time.” She often sends “good energy to the books. They’re going into places that are quite dark.”

Men and women in 35 prisons and jails in 13 states nationwide depend on Lafferty and her Millcreek-based nonprofit, Books Inside, for a monthly supply of books to expand often decrepit libraries. Last year, Books Inside mailed 23,000 books to incarceration facilities. In Utah alone, she supplies seven jails and created libraries from nothing in the Tooele County and Kane County jails.

While Lafferty bears the surname of the infamous Utah brothers who murdered a mother and baby in 1985, they are not related and the coincidence has nothing to do with her interest in prison libraries. She cut her teeth on the desperate need of prison libraries for all kinds of books after venturing in 2008 to the aging Draper facility of the Utah State prison. She intended only to donate seven copies of a book of vignettes on prison life by a California death-row inmate that had impacted her. But after meeting the state’s first full-time prison librarian, Christie Jensen, Lafferty says she “signed my life away in the volunteer training office.”

They teamed up to replace much of the prison’s badly out-of-date collections. While Jensen wrote grants for new books, Lafferty found a willing donor at a Millcreek thrift store.

A decade on, “Draper doesn’t need us,” Lafferty says about the Utah State Prison library’s 55,000 collection of books. But many other corrections facilities in Utah and other states do. While there are close to several dozen nonprofits nationwide that donate books to prisoners, Lafferty is an outlier because her self-funded nonprofit, launched in 2010, supplies books to administrations and not individual inmates.

Lafferty's experience has revealed not only the dire need for books in many facilities and the impact they can have on inmates but also on the staff who watch over them.

“Where we’re most effective is when there’s somebody in a facility who wants to get books out to the inmates,” Lafferty says. She cites a correction librarian in South Carolina who reached out to Books Inside for help. “She said, ‘I’ve got 1,200 men, 3,000 volumes, mostly old war romance novels,”’ Lafferty recalls.

Books Inside sends her a box of 50 books a month, which will typically include a range of reading levels, easy and more challenging fiction, science-fiction, nonfiction, dictionaries, humor and technical books: “There’s something in every box for everybody,” she says.

Lafferty identifies the neediest through word of mouth and emails, like the one from the librarian in South Carolina, or through handwritten letters from inmates themselves.

“Little by little, we’re finding them,” she says.

Her services come at a critical time for prison libraries across the nation. In 1992, the American Library Association released its “standards” for prison libraries, which included recommending 15 books per inmate, not including the federally mandated law libraries for prisons.

In a March 2016 email on a national prison librarian listserv, former Maryland head prison librarian Glennor Shirley bemoaned the decline of prison libraries.  “It appears that budget, staff shortage and the lack of interest and pushback from the prison authorities made it difficult to make the library standards more than just a document," Shirley said.

Shirley’s been retired for seven years, but the lessons she learned about the importance of libraries in prisons remain vibrant. Librarians, she says, are essential for prisoners, particularly those who often enter the system illiterate. As they learn to trust librarians, they then ask for more material and help.

“Sixty percent of prisoners go back if they don’t get an education in prison,” she says.

James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, concurs with Shirley’s pessimistic email.

“The problem is prison officials have a great discretion over the access of content and there’s been abuses,” he says.

In November 2017, Texas came under scrutiny for the arbitrary nature in banning 10,000 titles from its prison. “Where’s Waldo,” was banned, but not “Mein Kampf.” LaRue said he polled association prison librarians prior to talking to the Deseret News to gauge any progress in improving prisoner access to books and the quality of libraries. The answer was no.

As corrections budgets have taken hits nationwide, existing libraries have been dismantled as librarian staff have retired, says a veteran librarian who spoke anonymously because she did not have permission from her prison employer to talk to media. The books, whether left by prisoners or donated by nonprofits, are then sent out to prison units, repaired only by the inmates who read them. “Yet books are the least expensive form of rehabilitation,” she says.

Why books

Books and inmates can make unusual bedfellows, sometimes literally. Inmates use them to prop up the pillow end of a mattress while they read or mold Harlequin romances into pillows, say corrections staff. Heavy books can be tied up in old shirts at either end of a stick for weightlifting.

From the Utah State Prison administration’s perspective, books occupy idle minds. “Anytime you keep an offender engaged and busy, they’re less likely to display negative behavior,” says Victor Kersey, the prison's director of institutional programming. Improving inmates’ education leads to less recidivism, he says.

Inmates use library resources for work related to prison programs such as substance abuse and sex-offender treatment programs, from which successful graduation can be key to their gaining parole.

Inmates also view books as an escape. In the women’s prison library, which is the largest of the five libraries in the Draper prison, inmate Camille Randles, who is serving a sentence for obstruction of justice and failure to report child abuse, says books are “our safety net. It becomes so vital. Realities can almost be too much. Books offer a way out, an escape. Too many girls it becomes their everything.”

A similar desperate tone is apparent in 2,000 inmate requests for books that Lafferty now scours for clues to facilities in need of help. Bookseller Tony Weller asked Lafferty to take on the letters after another Utah nonprofit dedicated to sending books to inmates that used Weller Book Works as its postal address, closed almost two years ago.

The letters came from 28 states and over 150 facilities — 1,000 of them from Californian correctional centers alone. “You realize how isolated people in prison are,” Lafferty says about the letters’ contents. “How hard it would be to make personal changes in an environment that on many levels keeps you in the same place as you came in.”

One Nevada inmate wanted a book on mobile home maintenance so he could get a job at the park where his dying wife lives and care for her. A 59-year-old Latino inmate wrote that he was too embarrassed to ask for help in spelling and needed a dictionary.

Some letters spoke to a dark past. “I would like a big dictionary and a book of how to have a good relship (sic) with your wife and a book how to make some one to forgive you for hurting them,” another Nevada inmate wrote, his few words scrawled in pencil across a strip of paper torn from a page.

Passionate pursuit

Most people involved in books-to-prisoners nonprofits are like Janene Bellock, Lafferty’s longest-serving volunteer. The 66-year-old retired accountant has a stepson who, court records show, has been in and out of jail and prison. Bellock’s four hours a week for Books Inside comforts her even as her stepson’s history of mental-health problems and crime weighs heavily.

“It’s a 30-year, very deep heart ache. I don’t feel I ever really helped him," she says. "I feel like I need to do something for someone to make up for him and this is what I can do.”

Incarceration was something Lafferty had no dealings with prior to volunteering at the state prison library.

“None of this was in my past," she said. "I really knew nothing about prisons.”

Her outlier status in supplying books for people behind bars fits a life-long pattern. As a child from New York City vacationing in Florida at her grandfather’s home, she’d ditch the beach for running the switchboard at his office. She declines to disclose her age, but as an adult, she’s gone from running a Colorado sawmill to getting a doctorate in instructional psychology and teaching business conflict resolution at the University of Utah through studying martial arts for 18 years. She currently remodels residential and commercial properties for a living. And that’s just a thumbnail sketch of someone who rejects the trivialities of TV and Facebook in favor of a lifetime of studying whatever has intrigued her.

Jensen, other prison staff and inmates describe her as passionate and dedicated to serving others. When Lafferty hears such remarks, she shakes her head in mock despair. “Internally, I don’t feel a flicker of that.” Words like “driven,” “passionate” and “serving” are just not in her vocabulary.

To Lafferty, Books Inside is a team project aided by volunteers and those at the facilities she sends book to. At the beginning, she says, “I remember thinking, if it helps one person, that is a life and there’s no comparison.”

Beyond inmates

It’s not only inmates that benefit from Books Inside.

Sgt. Beth Price has worked at the Thermopolis jail in central Wyoming since 1993. Over the years, Price felt a rift develop between her aspirations for her career as a corrections officer and the day-to-day realities of her duties.

“I guess I was always kind of lost that way," she says. "I couldn’t find a way to help” break the cycle of returning offenders.

The jail houses just 32 inmates and Price has seen as many as three generations of the same family behind bars at one time. She tried fruitlessly to replace the 80-year-old hardbacks no one would read. “I think communities tend to forget about jails and prisons, when they’ve got books to get rid of,” she says.

Two years ago, a Books Inside volunteer called offering help and Price jumped at the chance, and she has witnessed the change she had hoped for. Before the arrival of donated books, inmates would play cards, watch TV and, plagued by boredom, goad each other into fights.

“The books changed that. All of a sudden inmates want to talk to you about something other than their life of crime or how they’re going to get out of this case or that charge.” She saw one inmate go from barely knowing his alphabet to, with the help of other inmates, 10 months later, learning to read a Louis L’Amour western.

“This has brought me back to where I needed to be,” Price says. She pauses, then adds, “I think this has done as much for me as it has for them.”

Preparing for life

A key role of a prison library, Maryland’s former head prison librarian Shirley says, is preparing inmates for “re-entry” into society.  “The sad thing is if we don’t prepare them for re-entry, they go right back,” she says.

Utah State Prison is turning to digital media and not books to address this gap. Institutional programming director Kersey says an initial 50 offenders in the Wasatch unit scheduled for release in the next six to 18 months will be using tablets to download material meant to help “streamline their release from prison to the community.” The resources include Ted Talks, YouTube videos, computer tools to build a resume storable on the cloud and state ID and driver's license application tools.

How much longer Lafferty can rely on her low-tech approach is a question she and her volunteers struggle with. It’s Lafferty who always packs the boxes, a final quality check she says. Bellock told her it would be good for other volunteers to pack, but so far, Lafferty demurs.

“When I’m packing them, I’m thinking who might be in the prison.” She prefers to pack in silence, “conjuring up in my mind the places I’m sending it to. I have a system I walk through 25 times a month. It’s a hard job to describe to somebody who hasn’t been sending books to Kane County for eight years.”

December is the only month Books Inside doesn’t send out boxes. The lines at the post office are simply too long and chaotic, Lafferty says. So, come Christmas Eve, she loads up the boxes for January in the back of her truck, drives the block to the post office, backs up to the door, then puts three boxes at a time on her hand-truck and wheels them up to the counter and pays the $375 shipping out of her pocket.

For those on the receiving end, the impact of this gift is immeasurable, wrote Adam Biegel, who is in a Texas prison for capital murder and is due for his first parole hearing in 2038. He was only allowed to answer a reporter's questions by mail. “Toby and the other volunteers threw a big rock in a small pond when they decided to help us,” he wrote, “meaning the ripples are far and wide, these books are not a one time deal, they entertain hundreds as easily as one.”