Fiction for Felons: Directed Fieldwork at a Prison Library

By Robin Hewitt Rousu
What do you do with patrons’ interlibrary loan books when they are put into solitary confinement? This summer I did directed fieldwork at the library in the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. I was surrounded by over 700 murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and other men who, as my supervisor put it, “are not here for singing too loudly in church”. One-third of the inmates are serving life sentences; the rest might live next door to you someday.

The library I worked in is a branch of the Washington State Library—one of 12 in state correctional institutions and mental hospitals that have been operating under severe budget cuts, dramatic reorganizations, and threats of closure of the entire system. Limping along, these institutional libraries provide information, ideas, and entertainment to some of the most isolated, least educated, and completely bored people in the evergreen state. The branch at the reformatory is one of four supervised by the energetic and overworked Rod Askelson, MLS. Virginia, the steadfast library technician, has run the daily operations of the library for the last eighteen years with the assistance and occasional hindrance of four inmate staff. Interns are rare because it seems like most library school students would rather recommend Ann Rule books to patrons rather than have the stars of Ann Rule books as patrons (seriously, each time the library staff orders one of her books they have to check to make sure it is not about somebody in the reformatory because of privacy issues). They seemed rather surprised to have me there, and just glad to have somebody new around—not to mention the free labor. Answering reference questions, assisting patrons with library use, recommending several hundred books for acquisitions and helping weed the entire 12,000 volume collection in one week were my official duties. Not getting assaulted in the stacks, keeping an eye out for hidden contraband, learning prison slang, and trying to earn the respect of the patrons took up the rest of my time.

Inmates are allowed a maximum of one trip to the library per day, and much like a school setting, they must come in together and stay for a prescribed period of time before they are allowed to move to their next activity. About three or four shifts of inmates make for a very full day of intense customer service. Two inmates run the circulation counter and shelve books, one handles interlibrary loans, and one deals with the tape collection. All four do repairs, shelf read, help clean, and their hourly wage is less than a normal overdue fines at a public library. Like a normal library, the patrons can check out books, order interlibrary loans, and ask reference questions. But this is not a normal library. The patrons are all men, and the majority of them are racial and ethnic minorities. Book damage and vandalism are high, with any picture that would look good on a cell wall or make an acceptable pattern for a tattoo ripped out or cut from the books with a razor blade. Horror, true crime, religion, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, GRE study materials, and self help books are all extremely popular. Almost nobody reads romances in the reformatory (how to get your ass kicked in one easy step), but in the medium-security prison next door that runs the sex offender treatment program, they circulate fairly well. The only Internet access the branch is allowed to have is one heavily password-protected dial up connection in a locked office. Since CDs can be sharpened into shanks, the inmates are only allowed print materials and audiocassettes. The two catalog terminals accessible to patrons have barely functional trackballs on them because computer mice can be used as dangerous weapons.

With no access to the Internet or any databases themselves, the inmates have to write even the most basic reference question down on a yellow slip of paper and wait usually more than a week to get a reply. Looking at my reference log, I seem to have spent about half of my time looking up the addresses of various businesses. Subscription information for various magazines and catalogs were common needs, and the rest of the questions ranged from information on geomembranes to which band sings a song heard on the radio.

The vast majority of the time, it was like being at a small public library with a rather unusual user group. Once in a while, however, there would be startling reminders of the reality of prison. On one of my first days there, the guard stationed outside the library caught on the closed-circuit camera two inmates having anal sex in the corner behind the bookshelves. Several days later, during the weeding project, I found a Ziploc baggie filled with sexual lubricant hidden behind the religion books and one of the inmate staff found a razorblade in the history section. Walking past the exercise yard in the mornings, despite the purposefully frumpy librarian outfits I wore, I was frequently serenaded. A group of inmates enjoyed testing my boundaries with inane reference questions, such as a bibliographic search for nonexistent biographies of themselves. It made me sick to find out that the nicest guy on the inmate staff, who had a wife and two young kids, was in prison for shooting somebody five times after a $25,000 cocaine deal fell apart.

Working with patrons who in the course of their daily lives are rarely treated as individuals can be very rewarding. The prison library is one of the few places in the reformatory that does not feel like being in prison. Mildly prompt and courteous customer service has the ability to astonish. Taking the time to take an inmate who keeps saying that he is “completely computer illiterate” and talk him through an online catalog search and back to the shelves to find all the books by Sandra Brown earned a rare expression of gratitude. There are extremely funny times, like helping a fast-talking convicted murderer find articles from when the guards thought that he had escaped from prison in Shelton and they began a major manhunt, only to find the next day that they had just put him in the wrong cell. When I was in the library at the prison next door for a few days helping with some weeding there (yes, the prison with the sex offender treatment program…), one of the inmates struck up a conversation about library school because he is a distinguished alumni from the MLS program at the University of Washington. I guess librarians are not above the law. But the best part of my summer behind razor wire, guard towers, and very thick walls, was finding out that given the opportunity, hardened criminals can get excited about books, ideas, and even Harry Potter.





Robin Rousu is a second year student in the day MLIS program.