Incarceration looked excruciating for the spirit and mind last week at the La Plata County Jail. One man accused of first-degree murder wiled away the hours doing pull-ups on Cell Block F’s metal banister; elsewhere, another inmate played solitaire ($2.59 for a deck of cards at commissary) in a tiny room. Most looked miserably bored.
Then, deputies made the announcement: Jail library volunteer Jim McLaughlin had arrived with their books.
Judging by the reaction – unconcealed delight – the deputies might have announced pardons.
In Cell Block F, a Bayfield resident accused of armed robbery rushed over to the book slot, grinning.
Such unabashed bibliophilia is typical, said Jail Chaplain George “Blake” Blakesley, who directs La Plata County Jail’s 3,000-volume library - which is housed on overstuffed shelves in his cramped office - with help from a group of dogged volunteers.
Most of the books were donated, he said, as is all the labor that the library requires to run. The program uses cash donations to buy extra copies of the most popular titles and replace books that “are plain worn out.”
In fact, a lot of books get worn out.
“In 2014, more than three-quarters of the inmates who were here used the library,” he said. “Most inmates’ lives are pretty hectic and somewhat dysfunctional; they grew up in families where nobody read to them. For a lot of people, this opens up the joy of reading.
“A lot of these guys’ families are in crisis,” he said, explaining why romance was among the jail’s most popular genres.
Through history, books’ enduring promise – their offer of truth, knowledge, human experience and nourishment for the soul – often has appeared especially compelling to the incarcerated. Nelson Mandela credited books with his psychological survival on Robben Island.
“That’s the thing most people don’t understand about jail,” said Capt. Mike Slade. “There’s just so much time. If you don’t use your brain in those cells, you start going crazy from the time. I couldn’t do it.”
In Cell Block B, after brief banter with deputies, another young man who’d just returned from disciplinary isolation agreed to put on his shirt in return for the two books he ordered.
Deputy Alfredo Ontiveros said because library access is a privilege, not a right, books offer deputies an important form of leverage over a sometimes excitable inmate population.
“It’s a bargaining chip. You’ll tell a guy, ‘Unless you calm down right now, you’re not going to find out what happens to Harry Potter,’” he said.
At the jail library, there’s no pornography, nor any “racy books,” volunteer Dell Wells said.
Otherwise, “it’s a pretty robust collection,” Wells said.
Blakesley said the jail is proud not to censor books, and masterpieces of anti-authoritarian literature litter its crowded shelves, including 1984.
“Censorship is an anathema to me,” he said.
“Once though, there was a realistic drawing book, and I had to take the book home to draw clothes on the female figures to make it appropriate,” the chaplain said.
Since New Year’s, one Cell Block F inmate has burned through more than 20 titles – including Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Doestyevsky’s The Idiot, Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury as well as Yoga as Medicine – a metabolism for literature that puts even the voracious reader Oprah to shame.
Next door at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center, some young men – who cannot be named because of the center’s policy – agreed that books are powerful in prison; they all had become prodigious readers since being incarcerated as juveniles. In 45 minutes, between them, they name-checked 78 distinct works of fiction and 63 authors in every genre.
An 18-year-old man from Ohio, with warm, playful intelligence and tattoos beyond his years, said, “A lot of the time, I hear students say, ‘I never read a book – a whole book – till I came here.’ We never really had time, with our lifestyles. But time flies within these walls. But to pass the time, I started reading out loud – that helps your reading skills go up. Then you finish it and go, ‘Dang, it’s a series, and I have to get No. 2!’”
A 20-year-old man from Denver said in facilities where life is paused, regimented and claustrophobic, books gave him access to a much bigger, ever-surprising world that challenged and tickled him.
“I’m not really on the ‘cop’ side of things. Mostly, I like ’hood books that I can relate to. But then I read James Patterson. I thought Alex Cross was just another average cop. Turns out, he’s a black detective, doing good things! I ain’t never seen a book with a black detective who’s honest and works to bust criminals. But his wife dies,” he said.
Again, the conversation – about reading in prison – turned to love.
The young man insisted he hated Twilight. But, he said, in general, he finds himself gravitating toward novels with strong romantic components.
“The ’hood books – I’ve already lived that life,” he said. “I don’t need to read about it every day. When I’m in my room, I like something on the softer side – it’s always really cool to read the love thing. And you might as well read about something you’ve never experienced before,” he said.