On my first day as an intern at the New York Public Library, Nick Higgins, the Associate Director for Community Outreach, handed me a stack of legal-sized white envelopes, a letter opener, and a Correctional Library Services, Mid-Manhattan Library stamp.
"You feel comfortable answering letters from prisoners?" Nick asked. I nodded, unsure of what I was getting myself into, but still attempting to look enthusiastic since it was my first day. "Great, it's simple. First, you look up the prisoner with their DIN, department ID number. Once you know they are still in custody and at the location they mailed their letter from, then you can open the letter up and see what they're asking for." Nick continued explaining and I kept nodding, trying to remember everything. I sort of felt I had just jumped into something way over my head. There were so many letters sitting in front of me, some probably asking questions I wouldn't know the answers to. Was I up to the task?
I was and spent most of my first day answering letters and addressing envelopes. It took about a day to finally figure it all out and create enough letter templates that I now have a general letter for any one I open.
Every day, NYPL's Correctional Services department receives many letters from prisoners in New York prisons and prisons across the country. Their letters usually fall into two categories: reference questions or requests for Connections.
Reference questions can be on literally anything. Since most prisoners do not have access to computers, they have no way of gathering information we often take for granted. I've looked up information on proxy marriages, song lyrics, used cars, and more. We can send up to ten pages of text, which gives us plenty of room to give an informative response.
The other request is for our book, Connections and the Job Search. This guide is published every year to contain the most up-to-date information on resources available to former inmates as they readjust to daily life. It is chock full of great information and we provide a free copy to any incarcerated person in the state of New York.
Regardless if the letter is asking for reference information or a copy of Connections, each letter receives a typed response. We stamp our return address label on the envelope (no hand written ones are allowed) and then nicely print the prisoner's name, their DIN number, and the address of the facility where they are housed. It's crucial that this information is correct; a misplacement of a number or letter can automatically mean the envelope of important information is shipped back to the Mid-Manhattan Library. And what good does that do?
This on-going project has reminded me the importance of two things: letter writing and access to information. Some of these letter writers are lonely and a response back is just what they need to brighten their day. I know what a thrill it is to receive a letter in the mail and so I always work quickly on sending letters; the quicker it's sitting on the mail cart means the quicker it will be in the hands of the prisoner.
And when I read their letters, it's easy to hear the excitement in their voices as their scribbles on the page say phrases like, "This is my year!" or "I would like a Connections so I can start to figure out what I want to do with my life." or "I look forward to hearing from you!" and more.
I'm writing this blog post using a computer and if I had a question on anything, I just have to open a new tab and type it into Google. It's not easy to imagine what life would be like without information literally at my fingertips. But then that situation reminds me why libraries will always be important: we gather, fine-tune, and provide information to people who have limited access.
The best letter I ever opened was one I didn't need to write an answer for. It was addressed to me, Hailley F., the way I sign every letter I send out. It wasn't a long letter, only a few lines. The man thanked me for sending him a copy of Connections. He told me it would be extremely useful to him and he couldn't wait to start using it. I got that happy feeling, the feeling where you know you're doing the right thing with your life. I was proud to be helping him and thrilled he was so excited.
As my intern responsibilities have grown, I've stopped responding to as many letters, allowing our solid group of volunteers to answer them instead. Nevertheless, I still smile when I sit down at my cubicle and see a nice pile of white envelopes waiting to be opened and know that we are truly making an impact on these prisoners' lives.