Over Due


Prison libraries have the smell of old books and the looks of a hoarders living room without the eclectic charm. Books were the only thing to keep me sane.


By law inmates are not allowed access to the internet so computer access is very limited and heavily restricted.  The three places where inmates have access is the JPay kiosk for email in the housing units, educational software and GED test taking in the school, and the LexisNexis legal software in the Law Library.  All of which were grudgingly adopted. The MDOC is not a 21st century institution.

This is a picture of a law library in a federal prison with the computerized work stations similar to the ones I saw while I was in prison.

The General Library on the other hand is as traditional and anachronistic as it gets.  At my first facility it even had a card catalog.  At my second, the catalog was computerized, but made available to inmates in a printout kept in a 3-ring binder.  Fiction, Nonfiction, Reference, and Periodicals.  Like the rest of the MDOC there is really no budget to update the libraries contents. Books have to be acquired creatively, such as donations of books removed from circulation in public libraries and inmate donations which comprise the majority of the library collection.  The result is an eclectic conglomeration of incomplete series, authors no one has ever heard of, yellowing paperbacks and the odd best seller or two.

Reading 3 to 5 books per seek I probably read between 1200 and 2000 books. About my 3rd or 4th year I saw a guy with a notebook where he kept a log of everything he read.  I wish I had thought of that.  More than once I checked out a book that by the time I’d read the first chapter I realized I had already read it.  The low-tech method of date stamping an index card utilized means that the library clerk can’t tell you whether or not you’ve read a particular book title.

Most prison libraries have an Inter-Library Loan program where inmates can borrow books from the local public library.  The catch is there is no way to know what titles are actually in the library.  You need to have the book title and author you want to request. After completing the ILL form and signing a blank disbursement form to pay for the book whatever the cost if something should happen and it is lost.  Then wait three weeks to find out if it is available.  The perfect system for people who have nothing but time on their hands.

The library is a very small space packed floor to ceiling with books and sometimes a waiting list of guys wanting to get on the call out.  Frequently when I was reading a series I would have to wait weeks to get the next book.  One of the most frustrating things about the library was the number of lost books.  Guys rode out or go home and the books don’t get returned.  Books lost in the housing unit often turned into wedges to prop up desks or bunks, or any number of tragic ends.  It may take years for missing books to be removed from the catalog.

One of the blessings I received from my family was their willingness to order books for me from Amazon, an approved vendor for books that outside people could order from for us.  I was able to plug the holes in several series that I was reading by donating the books after I read them.

Getting newspaper subscriptions was problematic.  I had a subscription for my home town paper, but papers were frequently missing. Because of the indirect delivery system, the paper company did not give credit or refunds for the papers I did not receive.  The alternative is to read newspapers at the library.  With a short callout there wasn’t enough time to digest the whole weeks’ worth of papers, but at least I could look at the headlines so I could have some awareness of local events back home.

I couldn’t resist this bad prison pun. Early on I realized that there isn’t much humor in prison and made attempts to make light of the situation. While most guys could understand and tell dirty jokes most did not have the language skills for puns like this one.

Newspapers were generally available for 4 – 5 of the largest cities in Michigan so guys could keep on top of local news.  Magazines mostly dealing with culture are also available.  These varied greatly from facility to facility based on what requests the librarian was receiving from inmates.  All paid for by the PBF.

Like most libraries prison libraries are quiet.  At least relatively speaking in comparison to the rest of the facility.  I was always amazed how quickly the time passed there. Whether wandering through the stacks perusing the title looking for just the right book to read or skimming the headlines, the time just flew bye and all too soon it was time to go home.  If I hadn’t had a job working as a tutor I would have probably worked in the library.

While the callouts were always full, it represented only a small percentage of the inmate population. Too many men were functionally illiterate, others were poor readers who just didn’t enjoy it so won’t turn to it as a past time.  When working with students in the school I always encouraged them to sign up for a General Library call out, find something you liked to read.  I told than that the more they read the stronger they would get mentally.  I compared it to weight lifting. The more you do it the stronger you’d get.  It didn’t matter what the subject matter was just do it. With count tine occurring several times a day there was a 60-minute opportunity every day to exercise your mind.  Unfortunately, few took me up on this suggestion.

At one facility the library offered a 363-certificate program called the Individual Resource Study Center (IRSC).  It allowed inmates to independently study a variety of educational offerings. Course materials had homework and there was a final exam.  You worked at your own pace. Course offerings ranged from high school social studies and math, advanced small business to empathy and leadership courses.  The educational materials would help those who only had a GED to round out their education.

IRSC provided an opportunity for inmates to participate in self-help programming that was recognized by the parole board.  Due to lack of over sight by the librarian, the library clerks working with the program were able to falsify student assignments and test results for profit, to assist those who tried to exploit the program for the purpose of trying to look good for the parole board without doing the work.  As a result, the program was significantly curtailed, clerks were fired and greater oversight was instituted.  The materials I found to be at least 10 years old and like so many other programs, it started out with good intentions suffered from neglect.

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