Most of the inmates at the jail can visit the library occasionally, but the ones on certain units can’t go. So they rely on staff, including me, to supply them with books. Everything I do as a mental health clinician is supposed to have a clinical purpose – any reading material is supposed to be chosen to help clients cope with stress, etc., and not just for entertainment. But I do it more because I can’t help myself, because I can’t imagine being locked up and having nothing to read.
Currently there’s a something of a racket in Hunger Games books going on. One of my clients has read the first book and got the third from the library, and now he’s holding the third one captive until he can read the second book. Another client told me she read the second book, so I found out who she lent it to and got the second woman to promise to give it to me when she’s done. (She’s likely to help me out because I’ve been keeping her supplied with Twilight novels for a month now.) Then my first guy can read the second book and the third, and when he’s done I can get the third book to the two women. I will feel so accomplished if this plan works.
I have a client who asks for classics, saying she doesn’t want her brain to rot when she’s in solitary confinement. Recently I got her Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth, telling her it’s about a woman who realizes she needs money, so she decides to marry a rich man but has all kinds of problems with relationships and money and ends up with a bad reputation and a drug problem. My client laughed and said she looked forward to reading it, because it sounded exactly like her.
I once came onto a unit bearing a few copies from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to add to the unit bookshelf. A woman spotted them from across the room and exclaimed, “Oooh, those books are like crack!” And she would know.
My selections aren’t always so successful. I brought some Edith Wharton to a man who had begged me for novels and poetry. He slid it back under the door of his solitary cell with disdain, saying he was only willing to read British literature because he finds American authors have “a dearth of poetic language.” Never mind that it meant another week with no new books until my next visit. His standards were firm.
We have a copy of Les Misérables in the mental health office that nobody is brave enough to bring to a client. In its favor, it has lots of characters the clients would love – a good-hearted prostitute who’s down on her luck, an ex-con who tries to do the right thing but keeps getting caught up by a vindictive cop. But it gets passed over due to the huge size and intimidating prose.
Not all the inmates are put off by big books, though. One of my clients is currently enthused about a history book (I suspect it’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States) that he found being used as a doorstop on his unit.
Another man told me he’d never had time to read much Dickens before. “I can’t believe how funny it is!”
There’s a lot of demand for dictionaries. Some people use them to check, when they’re using big words in their raps and love letters, that they’re using them correctly. But it took me a year to realize that much of the demand is because some of the illiterate inmates believe they can learn to read and write from a dictionary. There are a few books intended for speakers of other languages, but not much for native English speakers who never actually became literate.
Parenting books are also in high demand. Most parents learn as they go and see their child develop, but a lot of the clients haven’t had custody of their children in a while – it’s hard to jump to parenting a 4-year-old when you basically haven’t seen her since she was 2.
One of my coworkers had a client ask her for a copy of “Men’s Health” magazine. She couldn’t find one, but brought him “Positive” magazine instead, which had some healthy-looking men on the cover. Afterwards he told her kindly that he was able to get the magazine into the trash without anyone noticing, and to please not bring him no AIDS magazines next time. Another coworker had a similar experience with a randomly-chosen novel that turned out to be about gay men. Now we’re careful to evaluate books for gayness, lest we endanger our clients.
For more on the life of books in prison, see librarian Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books.