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Controlled Chaos: A Day Working the Rikers Island Book Cart
Another day of volunteering at Rikers Island with the NYPL has come to a close. Thursday I went to one of the male detention houses along with my mentor and two other staff members from NYPL. We were there for "book cart service," which is a little different than what I remember from Shawshank Redemption.
We delivered books to both solitary confinement and two different "houses," which are the names of blocks within the building. The inmates in solitary confinement are allowed to request books off a list, so we filled these requests from the "library" within this particular building, which was really just two tall shelves of paperback books in the back of the Chaplain's office.
We felt like Indiana Jones capturing the golden statue when we found a book one of the prisoners had requested. Usually the titles were listed on their slips of paper as Cold Moon. That's it. No author, just words. If we couldn't find one of the prisoner's specific books (they can request three and we try to find one of them) we will substitute something simliar, same author, plot, etc. Two prisoners had requested Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare, so as a substitue I found The Motorcycle Diaries, complete with a picture of Gael Garcia Bernal on the cover.
All the books were piled up on a rolling cart that we first took to solitary confinement. Solitary is also known as the "Bing," although no one we talked to knew exactly how it got that name. Along with an armed guard we delivered the requested books, one magazine, and some free newspapers from the city to each of the solitary cells. Most of the men were sleeping, a few said thank you, and it was altogether less dramatic than I thought it was going to be. The prisoner who requested Guerilla Warfare though, was less than happy with his substitution, and refused to take it. Perhaps Gael Garcia Bernal's teen idol good looks were not the image of rugged rebel resistance he'd had in mind. After our insistence that it was the same person and a reminder that we wouldn't be back for two weeks he decided to take the book, although I'm not entirely sure he's going to read it.
After the Bing, we took our cart to Houses 4 and 6. One thing that was very evident as we walked down the hallway was that the library service was well-liked, well-used, and in-demand. Most of the prisoners who walked by us (in between a red line painted on the floor and the wall) asked if they could have a book, or if we were coming to their house or not. Sometimes the decision to provide book service to a house is dependent on whether or not they have the desire to return books, but more often it is because there are over ten thousand prisoners on Rikers Island and one single Correctional Services Librarian. That's a pretty large patron base.
Getting books back from the prisoners and letting them pick out new ones is a bit of controlled chaos. We stood outside the iron door to the house with our cart and had two prisoners come out at one time, check off their returned book, and pick out a new one. Each prisoner is allowed one book and one magazine. The most popular books are by far James Patterson's novels, so popular in fact that we have to lock them up after book service because they tend to disappear. I wonder if James Patterson has any idea. National Geographic is the magazine of choice, and there is an entire box of them to choose from, some as far back as the early 80's. Urban magazines and books were in high demand, with almost no supply.
Everything is done by hand. The prisoners hand me their picture ID and I copy down their number along with the title of book they chose. Later this will be printed up by one of the NYPL staff members and checked off as books are returned. With zero Pattersons left on our cart and four houses served, we brought the book cart back to the Chaplain's office, unloaded, locked the books up, and checked out of the facility before roll call.
One more day on Rikers Island left.