For twenty years, New York Public Library's Correctional Services program has provided books to the inmates of Rikers Island jail and provided reference services by mail to inmates throughout the state.
Located outside of Queens across from Laguardia airport, Rikers Island jail is vast complex of housing units and facilities that holds around 13,000 inmates at a time. Its scale can be seen on a map but the size of the operation can only be understood through a visit. As an intern with the Correctional Services program, I made my first visit two months ago. Since then, with NYPL staff and other volunteers, I have served a variety of areas and groups on the island: those under mental observation, an adult male facility, solitary confinement or "the bing", and the library within the high school for girls. I am a student of Library Science nearing graduation. Prison library work is a neglected topic in most programs but the classroom would be an insufficient place to learn about the unique environment of a correctional facility. The experience is unparalleled, strange and fulfilling. There are surprises. Like the loud music playing in each of the buses that transport staff and visitors around the island, each bus with its favorite genre. You may get the classic rock bus, the contemporary r&b bus or the soul bus. The blaring music is a welcome wake-up before and after a long morning at book-cart service. Less surprising are the reading habits of the inmates. Vampires and James Patterson are popular on the inside, just like they are everywhere.
The thing I have found to be most striking is the distance between the inmate services and those in the rest of the public library. Though the bulk of the work happens on a locked down island, there are ways to anchor the services to the family of NYPL staff members, patrons and friends. The scope of public library services is larger than many might guess and because of that, there are great possibilities for involvement. If you would like to get involved, our priority at the moment is book donation. We are looking for the following items: Urban Lit (Triple Crown, Urban Books, etc.), Popular fiction (Patterson, Grisham, Rice, Meyer, Rowling, etc.), Sports and Music Biographies, Conspiracy Theory non-fiction, African-American History, Small Business and Investment, GED study guides, and Paperback Dictionaries. Paperback is always preferred.
To donate, please send an email to the Correctional Services Librarian, Nicholas Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and the size of your donation before sending books to the Mid-Manhattan branch at 455 Fifth Avenue, NY 10016.