Interview with a Prison Librarian

Recently, a commenter, Oryx, mentioned that she used to work as a prison librarian, and I wanted to learn more. She graciously agreed to do an interview for us, and here’s the Q&A.

How did you end up in the job? And how long were you there?

I answered an ad I found through Indeed.com, but which was originally posted on my state’s job board (even though I worked for a for-profit prison that was not managed by the state). To be honest, when I first applied, I didn’t realize it was a prison because neither the name nor the ad made it sound super obvious, and when I got called for an interview I almost didn’t go. But I had just finished grad school, and it was right when the economy was sinking and the librarianship field was in dire straits, so if nothing else I figured I’d get good interviewing experience. But they ended up hiring me and I was there for 21 months. It was all-male, minimum security. We had a strong substance abuse program, so the majority of inmates were sent there if they were on drug crimes or DUI.

Tell us a bit about what a typical day was like.

The prison library was open six days a week, two shifts per day: either the morning and afternoon or afternoon and evening. I’d get to work about 30 minutes before the library opened. If it was the morning, there would already be inmates waiting outside the door. If it was the afternoon, I’d get there right at the count time before lunch so the yard would be empty as they were all in their bunks. Each shift was open for about 3 or 4 hours. Then we’d close for an hour or two for count and the meal, then reopen.

During that half hour, I’d make copies or print documents that had been left from the day before. Inmates paid for copies and print-outs but only legal documents could be copied or printed so I had to check everything first (on the computers they only had access to Lexis-Nexis and an open office word processing program). After that, I set everything up for the day, including turning on lights, setting out sign-in/out sheets, making sure tables and chairs were in order.

Most of my day was spent in more of a manager position, as I had inmate works at the circulation desk who did all the checking in and out of books (we stilled used the old-fashioned card pockets in the back of the book) or handling newspapers and magazines. There was also a law library where the computers and typewriters were, which was also staffed by a handful of inmates. I became a notary as part of the position so I would spend a lot of the time notarizing documents, helping with book recommendations (although my workers got good at this, too), cataloging donated books, keeping circulation stats updated for my monthly report and, of course, I was there to maintain control. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time maintaining the rules: telling inmates to make sure they sign in and out, make sure their shirts were tucked in, make sure they take their hats off, no food and drink. It’s the prison, we had a lot of policies so that was a big part of my job).

The afternoon shift was by far the busiest, because the newspapers and magazines came in during lunch. There was always a delay so the papers were a couple days behind, but the inmates didn’t seem to care. We carried USA Today and most of the major papers from around the state. Magazines were pretty broad interests like Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Car and Driver, things like that.

Because we were minimum security, the inmates were free to come and go when the yard was open. The only exception to this was when Daylight Saving Time ended each year, and during the evening shift, it would be dark in the evening. Once the lights out in the yard turned on, the inmates were not allowed to leave the library until it closed and only after I took a count and called control up front and let them know how many inmates were leaving. I’d do a “last call” type of situation before sunset and after that they were stuck in the library until we closed. The inmates hated that and would try to leave early, but there wasn’t anything I could do (and even if they did leave early, there were always correctional officers out patrolling the grounds, so even if they stepped outside they’d usually get told to get back inside from both the COs and me).

On Fridays, I would go down to the segregation unit where inmates who have been temporarily removed from the general population stayed. I’d go around cell to cell and ask if there were any books they wanted to read then I’d bring them those books on Saturdays. There was a small bookshelf of titles that I changed out once a month or so.

For more of this interview click: Ask-A-Manager

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