On July 26, New York Public Library (NYPL) launched the first permanent public library location at Rikers Island, East Elmhurst, NY, New York City’s main jail complex and one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. NYPL’s Correctional Services (CS) team has been providing library services at Rikers Island since 1984, currently operating five satellite libraries throughout the complex’s ten jails—mobile book carts that move from unit to unit, or rooms that share space with other programs, requiring the books to be boxed up and removed at the end of each session. The new 1,200-volume library at the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC) is the first to occupy dedicated space. Decorated with posters and vibrant, comfortable furnishings, the library is open for six hours every Tuesday, serving half of the facility every other week. Inmates may check out two books at a time for two weeks.
The CS team visits New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) jails six times each week. Last year alone it circulated some 22,000 volumes within the prison system. But the book carts at Rikers, with its average daily population of 10,000, were only able to reach a portion of the prisoners. “When we’d walk down the hall with the cart, absolutely everyone was saying, ‘How come we don’t get books? We want to read…. We’re special too!’” said Sarah Ball, NYPL’s managing librarian of outreach services. “So we already knew…that everyone would be thrilled, and we’ve had a great response.”
A PERMANENT SPACE
The space at RMSC (known familiarly as Rosie’s), which houses more than 2,000 female inmates, opened up earlier in the year thanks to DOC administrators who support the eventual goal of permanent library spaces throughout the entire complex. “The women’s facility has…better real estate,” explained Ball, “so they were able to find a space that worked really well and is actually quite lovely. There’s big windows and natural light and it’s a good size for a small library. It’s partly just luck that [RMSC] had the right space, but it’s also just a really nice facility.”
Work on the library took about two months, according to Ball. DOC planned the internal logistics: how the service would be run, and sequencing visits from RMSC’s 16 housing units during the library’s open hours. “The whole facility pitched in to make it happen with us, and then we of course were in charge of gathering the donated books,” she said.
With a limited book budget, CS was able to purchase a small percentage of the collection, but relied mostly on discarded and withdrawn books from branches of NYPL, as well as donations from the public and an internal book drive among corrections officers. Prisoners will also donate books they’ve read and want to pass along.
The women of RMSC were excited to watch the space as it was transformed by CS staff. “We’d be there hanging up posters and putting books on the shelves, and the women who were in the dorms close by would come and check up on our progress and say, ‘Oh, that’s looking really nice,’ or ‘I like what you’ve done with that,’” said NYPL correctional services librarian Emily Jacobson. “They’ve seen it since it was an empty room…. They’re pretty invested in it.”
The librarians made sure that everyone within the facility was on board, including corrections officers. Ball and Jacobson made it a point to show up at 7 a.m. roll call to talk to the officers about the project, hand out flyers, and get feedback on their operational plan. “Getting to Riker’s by 7 a.m. is a commute!” said Ball. “We were up at 4 a.m. so that we could catch that first batch of officers that comes in for the day.” The officers were supportive (although, Ball added, “It’s hard to be enthusiastic at 7 a.m.”)—particularly after finding out that they are welcome to check out books as well.
AN ECLECTIC COLLECTION
Urban fiction sees the most circulation, as well as popular fiction by authors such as James Patterson, Lee Child, John Grisham, and Danielle Steel. The collection also holds literary fiction, classics, YA, graphic novels and comic books, fantasy, and sf (“Vampires are still popular,” noted Ball). Nonfiction encompasses a wide range, from self-help, health, and spiritual books to memoir, biography, and history. Very little content is prohibited by DOC other than “the obvious stuff,” according to Ball. “We are asked by the department not to bring in books about how to make weapons, or fighting techniques.”
Otherwise, anything goes. The library’s opening day featured readings by Rayya Elias, whose Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side includes recollections of time spent at Rikers Island, and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love (both Penguin). The authors brought copies of their books to sign and hand out, and CS hopes to bring in more guests.
Patrons are welcome to make requests as well, and the librarians do their best to fulfill them, either from CS’s existing collection or by putting a call out to other branches. If they’re unable to get the book, they’re happy to make recommendations. “I feel like even being able to…say we tried our best, and here’s what we looked for—that goes a long way,” said Nicholson. A wish list can be found on CS’s donation page.
Reading levels vary among the prison population, and the CS team plans to add more high-low books to the collection. Ball takes notes of patrons’ reading abilities, and tries to match them with appropriate material. “We have had people who don’t read, and we encourage them to take magazines—we have lots of National Geographic and stuff like that—so they can at least enjoy something,” Ball told LJ. “And we have puzzles, mazes, stuff like that that we can bring in if someone asks for it.” While CS doesn’t offer literacy instruction, Ball said, the need clearly exists.
The books on the shelves represent only a part of the total; CS maintains a backup collection that will be used as more books are checked out, and to fill in for the inevitable attrition. Because Rikers houses prisoners awaiting trial on a relatively short-term basis—the average stay at RMSC is 45 days—“There’s a lot of loss of material because people get moved around [and] people go home,” explained Ball. “We ask everyone to be responsible for the books they checked out. They can let other people read them as long as they’re the ones who return [them]. But…people really don’t know what is next for them there. So loss is definitely a part of it, just because of the turnover and the movement.”
While patrons visit the library and check out books as they would at any other branch, there are a few major differences at the Rikers library. The books are not cataloged, explained Ball, nor are they part of NYPL’s catalog, since they’ve been withdrawn from circulation. “Even on the shelves, we don’t use the Dewey Decimal system,” she told LJ. “We categorize by what’s popular. We know our patrons really well, and we have everything [shelved] so that the popular stuff is easy to find, and so that people can naturally move from one genre to another or one topic to another, and they can browse and see what looks good.”
There are also no late fines; instead, patrons who don’t return books lose library privileges—although the librarians reserve the right to be flexible. “We’re pretty forgiving,” she said. “If it’s a pattern then no, you won’t be able to use the library any more. But we understand that sometimes things happen to the books.”
CS hopes to increase the library’s open hours and to develop more permanent locations if funding, staffing, and additional space can be found.
“We understand that most of our offenders are going back to the community, so true public safety for us is trying to get that individual into a better condition to go back home and lead the life that they hope for,” said DOC commissioner Joseph Ponte in a statement. “As we do this work, we know the New York Public Library is committed to the same goals—providing opportunities and enriching the lives of those in our custody and the New York City community at large.”
In addition to library initiatives within the facility itself, NYPL is joining forces with Queens Library and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) to expand on services developed by TeleStory, the video visitation system pioneered by BPL and one of the winning projects of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s 2016 News Challenge on Libraries.
“Our society is only as strong as its most vulnerable residents, so it is so important that libraries serve everyone, including the incarcerated,” said NYPL President Tony Marx in a statement. “We have offered services to these patrons for over 20 years, and are proud to expand into our first permanent library on Rikers Island. It will help us continue the important work of ensure everyone is able to read, learn, gain skills, and stay inspired.”
“I have to say the library’s always greeted with enthusiasm, whether it’s mobile or not,” said Jacobson. “But the women at Rosie’s have been so incredibly excited. They’ve been happy, they’ve been grateful, they’ve been curious about how they can help it run smooth and stay open. There’s been nothing but enthusiastic responses.”
Readers who wish to donate books can check out CS’s donation guidelines—which, warned Ball, are fairly strict. “We really want to avoid the idea that because [our patrons] are in jail they’ll read anything. That’s absolutely not true. Our readers are pretty picky.”