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Freedom of Thought
The New York Public Library on Rikers Island: Bringing Books, Newspapers & Magazines to Inmates
NYPL Has Correctional Librarians? When I heard that the New York Public Library (NYPL) had a correctional librarian, you can bet that I was excited. I have an education background and recreational interest in criminal justice. I was fascinated to learn that NYPL visits Rikers, as well as other correctional institutions in and around New York City. Sarah Ball, Luis Torres, and a cadre of volunteers (some of whom work for NYPL) also answer inmate letters, organize the correctional special library, and help check out books to inmates on Rikers island.
Inmates Love the Library Service: The great thing about library service on Rikers Island is that the inmates are so appreciative. They love that we are there to bring them books, and they cherish the books because they often have little else to do, especially the inmates who are in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. They sometimes read the books, newspapers and magazines over and over. The inmates that we do not serve there always ask why we cannot provide book cart services to their houses (cell blocks).
Staying Safe: We bring the books, newspapers and magazines to inmates in the punitive or protective segregation. When I am at Rikers, I am very cognizant of my behavior; I'm courteous to inmates. I follow the directions of the Correctional Officers; they have a sixth sense about danger that I lack. If they say move left, I move left. If they want me to move right, I move right. I am glad that they are there to keep us safe.
Jail versus Prison: Rikers Island is a jail. A jail is a correctional facility that is designed to hold people accused of a crime and awaiting a trial, people convicted of a crime and awaiting sentencing, or people convicted of a crime and serving less than one year. Prisons hold people convicted of a crime and serving more than one year.
Great for Professional Development: The correctional services at NYPL and Rikers Island has been great for my professional development. Nick Higgins and Luis Torres are great to work with; they are so passionate about their work and dedicated to providing library services to inmates. While volunteering at Rikers, I met a former NYPL outreach librarian, who is so sweet and is very curious about my interests and professional activities. She is very knowledgeable, and I learn from her experience and perspective. I was also able to reconnect with a former colleague and learn about her online book discussion group. While getting an ID for Rikers, I met another volunteer who is an editor with a publishing company, and she is also pursuing a master's degree in library science. All of this I experienced, just because of Rikers!
How I Met Nick: I met Nick Higgins in 2010, soon after he became the NYPL Correctional Librarian. I went with a children's librarian from the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) to the Rose M. Singer correctional facility within Rikers to do a baby lap sit story time. There were three nannies and three babies in the nursery while we were there. It was cool; I hadn't walked in a jail for awhile (I've never been an inmate). Soon afterward, Higgins had a training for staff that were interested in volunteering at Rikers at the Bronx Library Center. I attended, and I met other staff who were already volunteering at Rikers or who were interested in doing so.
Discovering the Correctional Special Library: For awhile, I volunteered at the Mid-Manhattan Library, and I worked on arranging and cataloging the book collection housed there, including donations, that the correctional library staff brings to jails and prisons in the New York City area. I was able to learn much about the special correctional library within NYPL by volunteering to organize their book collection, which I compared to my experience being a solo librarian in a music school library, a synagogue library, and a preschool library in and around the Philadelphia area.
Prison Librarians Special Interest Group at Metro: The Metropolitan New York Library Council has Special Interest Groups (SIGs), one of which is for Prison Librarians. I went to one of their meetings, then joined Metro for a year. Nick Higgins was chairing the group at the time; now it is co-chaired by Sarah Ball, NYPL's Corrections Librarian, who has also written blogs about NYPL service on Rikers Island. I found the meeting very informative; I met a prison librarian from Sing Sing Prison on Staten Island, who later worked with Higgins to provide a tour of the Arthur Kill Prison library.
A Hiatus: Then, I was transferred to different libraries, and I did not work with Correctional Services for a couple of years. Then, when I started at the Grand Concourse Library in 2012, my supervisor asked if I wanted to go to Rikers. I said okay, I would fill in for the staff member on maternity leave. I was very excited to be working with Nick Higgins again, who is awesome.
NYPL Correctional Services Procedures: I like the way that Correctional Services at NYPL runs their volunteer program. Volunteers meet at 9 a.m. at the New Dream Deli in Queens, NY on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Fridays. (Volunteers sign up for the particular days that work for them. Then, we go by car and/or bus to Rikers Island. Then we go to the NYPL office in the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC). Inmates can borrow one book and magazine. They can have two poetry books or two foreign language books, instead, since there is less demand for those materials. We usually cart many books and magazines to the NYPL office at Rikers Island. They usually want a Metro newspaper and we also give out the Village Voice newspaper.
We have a rolling cart that we pile high with the popular fiction of James Patterson and others, nonfiction books like GED exam preparation books, and we have boxes of National Geographic and comics, which are very popular. We also have bags filled with newspapers that hang from poles that protrude from one end of the cart. The prisoners have as much of a selection as we can pack onto the rolling cart. The mobile library from NYPL visits Rikers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then we roll the cart to different cell blocks (or "houses" as the inmates call them). We unload the newspapers from the carts and put them on the floor, and we put the boxes of National Geographic and comics on the floor for the inmates to make their selections. (Unfortunately, we do not have tables to use.) The inmates love the newspapers especially; even inmates who do not want a book or magazine often choose to take some newspapers.
The Correctional Officers and Torres or Ball ask for book returns first. Inmates cannot check out additional items if they have materials that have not been returned. The inmates form a line, and they wait they turn. Inmates can make requests while they are looking for books, which the NYPL Correctional Services staff will make every effort to fulfill or to find a suitable substitute. For the punitive and protective custody areas, we bring newspapers, magazines and books. We are usually done by 3 p.m., due to other activities that the Rikers Island facility engages in. There is no lunch period; volunteers can bring snacks in clear plastic bags. There are no formal breaks.
Lock downs: Occasionally, the day is interrupted by a "lock down." A lock down is where movement by nonessential personnel is restricted due to a security risk, as determined by the Rikers Island Correctional staff. We could be waiting for 15 minutes or a half-hour. Some days, volunteers cannot enter the jail facility, due to a serious lock down. However, most days, the lock down procedures do not take more than one half-hour.
Standing Library and Nursery Story times: There is a standing library which NYPL staff and volunteers set up in a room at Rikers on Fridays. Also, sometimes, NYPL staff and/or volunteers are able to visit the nursery at Rikers Island and do baby lap sit story times.
Library Service in Correctional Institutions: Library service in jails and prisons can vary greatly. Some jails and prisons have paid librarians, some may have inmate workers, and some may have no library service at all. The New York Public Library is lucky that we are able to provide library service to these New Yorkers who otherwise might not have access to their favorite books, magazines, comic books and newspapers.
Volunteer Dress Code: Rikers has a certain dress code that must be followed, since the library service is not a mandated program. Volunteers should not wear blue or green, since they do not want to be confused with the inmates. Also, metal hair clips are prohibited. Volunteers are asked to wear long sleeves, even in the summertime, and there is no air conditioning at Rikers. If the heat bothers volunteers, they should keep that in mind when scheduling visits to Rikers.
Volunteering with the NYPL correctional services at Rikers Island is a terrific experience; the NYPL staff and volunteers are great to work with!
Volunteer at Rikers or learn more about NYPL correctional services by contacting:
(Libraries and individuals can donate books.)
The highest need is for urban fiction, books on conspiracy theories, popular authors such as James Patterson, Dan Brown, Ludlum, Sheldon, Baldacci, etc. and other popular series such as The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, etc.
Call ahead of time.
455 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10016
- Connections: a guide for ex-inmates to information sources in New York City, plus The job search
Available as a PDF. Contact Nick Higgins for a copy or use the book at your local library in New York City.
- Books Through Bars in NYC
- Criminal justice journals
- Books about Rikers Island
- NYC Department of Correction
- American Jail Association
- Correctional Association of New York
- Women's Prison Association
- American Correctional Association
- Prison Policy Initiative
- International Corrections and Prisons Association
- More posts filed under Freedom of Thought