Adventures of An Aspiring Librarian

On Visiting A Prison Library

on March 24, 2013

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Recently I had the opportunity to visit a prison library with the UNC Special Libraries Student Association.

After classes, we adventurers carpooled to the Polk Correctional Institute in Butner, North Carolina. Polk Correctional Institute is a state-run prison that houses over 900 male inmates. While the prison generally houses your typical criminal offenders, it also has a high security maximum control unit intended for the state’s most violent offenders.

The inmates at Polk (aside from those in maximum security) typically have a daily schedule that includes meals, classes, recreational activities and other routines. They can even go to the prison library at a certain time and check out books and other materials!

Once we arrived at the prison, we were escorted in past the barbed wire and through security. We couldn’t bring in any items except for our IDs. Once signing in and moving past security, the librarian met us and took us through the prison to the library. She had to use her ID to enter through each door, and each door had to close behind us before the next one could open.

The Polk Correctional Institute Library itself was small and charming. Books of all kinds lined the walls, and there were plenty of places to sit. The librarian told us how the inmates could come and check out books, read, and even take classes in the library in order to better their lives after being released. To that degree, there were quite a few fliers and books on interpersonal relationships, investing money and job hunting. Interestingly, the librarian said that the inmates’ favorite author is James Patterson, a thriller novelist.

We talked about how everyday operations in a prison library are different than your normal public library. For one thing, there are no computers in the prison library. When we asked why, the librarian said that the inmates sometimes would take the computers apart and then take the modems out in order to make tattoo guns! We were shocked! For obvious reasons, all computers are in a separate room where the men are carefully monitored. She also mentioned how many times inmates will return books ripped up or in damaged conditions. This is because they will sometimes take the pages to make notes/airplanes to send to each other across the room/cells. The librarian has to try to keep a close eye on the books because of this.

After this visit, I concluded that while I don’t see myself working in a prison library in the near future, I was very impressed with the way the library was run and with the prison librarian herself. She seems like a no-nonsense kind of woman (who doesn’t let any of the inmates intimidate her), but one who clearly has the best interests of her patrons at heart. Despite the unique obstacles she has come across in her library environment, she said she really enjoyed being able to give the inmates something they could use to enrich themselves, whether in prison or for the future when they may be released.

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