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Prisoners' Rights and NYPL Correctional Services


Reference question: when did the largest prison strike in the history of the United States occur? 1890? The 1930s maybe? Wait, was it Attica in 1971?

The answer: December 2010.

That's right, the largest strike by incarcerated individuals in an American correctional facility occurred just late last year in Georgia, was brutally suppressed and silenced, and passed with barely a ripple of attention from mainstream media. Granted, it's not as exciting as (rich, white, notably not poor and black) Charlie Sheen's laundry list of addictions, but the deliberate inattention paid to the story seems symptomatic of obvious, much larger looming systemic issues no one really wishes to discuss on talking-head television.

A coordinated effort by white, black and Latino inmates across six different institutions statewide managed to transcend gang dynamics (gangs are always a mechanism of control, not resistance) and suspend the "business as usual" structural violence of inhuman bureaucracy that is instutional incarceration. The prisoners' demands included a living wage for work, opportunity to pursue education and a GED, basic and decent healthcare, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, access to families, and just parole decisions. As of April 2011, we do know that the strike's organizers were harassed, denied medical treatment and some completely disappeared from their assigned facility.

It's a sorry state of affairs in fact when no rhetoric at all is necessary to polemicize on the American prison industry: all we have to do is trot out some numbers and facts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

In 2009, over 7.2 million people were under some form of correctional supervision.

As of 2007, black males were incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and only 2.5 that of Hispanic males.

As of 2008, the United States has less than 5% of the world's population, and 23.4% of the world's prison populationA modern cell in Sing Sing Prison., Digital ID 418576, New York Public Library

According to Noah Zatz at UCLA Law, "well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic task of stamping license plates." We have a word for work without pay—slavery—and we know of a work of fiction that depicts a large powerful nation that used large pools of unpaid labor to produce things: The Gulag Archipelago. Think that's hyperbole? Perhaps you should consider visiting your local state prison.

Of course, it is not in this writer's expertise nor interest to judge on the conditions of the New York State Correctional System and its comparison to other states' or federal facilities. However, as Noam Chomsky has said of intellectuals, this writer at times feels the same of some librarians: those librarians who do little in the public interest, are blind to social injustice, and adamantly pretend economic disparities do not exist or are 'natural' to society. This assessment utterly and of the utmost cannot be said of the dedicated, earnest and humanistic work done by New York Public correctional librarians Nicholas Higgins and Luis Torres.

Currently the New York Public Library enjoys the privilege of offering library services to inmates at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The two staff members work with a revolving cast of volunteers providing book cart service, returning letters to inmates located upstate, and continually outreaching to other city institutions. Higgins' initiatives have garnered some press as well over the past year or two, and he continues to make innovative inroads for excellence of service as a prison librarian.

Here's how you can get involved:

The goal of NYPL's Correctional Services Program is to get books into hands of incarcerated New Yorkers and to provide inmates accurate information on useful community resources upon release; they currently have a zero dollar book budget, and rely solely on donations. They are most in need of:

Urban Lit, Paperback dictionaries, GED books, Popular fiction, Vampire fiction, Dream interpretation & astrology books, biographies, small business & personal finance books, computer books, African-American history, Latino history, books in Spanish, and magazines or comic books of all kinds. All titles must be paperback copies. Email,, or myself for more information on how to donate.

Also, please check out New York City's chapter of Books Thru Bars or donate to them at Bluestockings Bookstore.

Education and literacy are rights and should be available to everyone, universally and without qualification of any kind: let's not take them for granted while others are fighting for them against extraordinary odds only a few hundred miles away.


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Here's to NYPL's Correctional Services & Books Thru Bars!! Literacy for Incarcerated Teens is another excellent organization.

budget for new books needed

As a former NYPL librarian and current prison librarian I am very proud of the work being done by Nick and his team. However I speak from experience when I say that "zero dollar book budget" and "excellence of service" do not belong in the same sentence. Donations are crucial to this type of work, but the reality is you end up getting an awful lot of old economics textbooks, copies of "The Thorn Birds" and Henry James novels and relatively few books at the inmates' reading level and of relevance to their interests. The other reality is that any good librarian faced with an insufficient budget, like any good teacher in a similar situation, is going to try to make up the difference out of their own pocket. Surely a system as big as NYPL can find a few thousand dollars a year for new books for a prison with 10,000+ residents? If you can get Brooklyn & Queens libraries, the prison and a couple of the big publishers to all match this amount, then you're talking. New York is the greatest city in the world and should have the greatest prison library. Step up your game New York!

Forest, you are absolutely

Forest, you are absolutely correct; collection development seems next to impossible, and it can take weeks to fulfill someone's request-- Nick has a funny story about cleaning up the teen library at Rose Singer Women's Facility, which contained a bizarre amount of Norman Mailer books... So once again: people we would love for you to donate *but* please donate what people actually like to read, and make sure its as in a good of a condition that you yourself would actually pick it up as is!

Collection Development

Our program is funded each year by the NY State Education Department, Division of Library Development and is directly affected by fluctuations in the overall State budget. In 'flush' years we have been able to set aside a few thousand dollars to purchase some books, but that hasn't been an option for us in quite some time. Currently, we have just enough money to support a full time librarian (me) and a part time assistant (Luis), along with a budget to publish the Connections Re-entry guide. Last year Literacy for Incarcerated Teens generously provided some money to purchase books for teens at Rikers, allowing us to replenish a book cart for incarcerated young women and add to the collection in a facility for teen boys. Additionally, companies like the Discovery Channel and the DE Shaw Group have organized book drives for us yielding several hundred relevant (and new) books for our program. Donations by the Colbert Report, various book publishers, Girl Scout troops, and community members have allowed us to provide inmates with a fairly close approximation of general library services inside the jail. As Forest indicates, it's tough to provide excellent library service without total control of the collection's development. So, if you'd like to donate, take Trevor's advice and think about what a person might want to read before sending out the box - and thanks for the support.

Thank you so much for

Thank you so much for bringing attention to this issue! I was absolutely thrilled to see this post. I often donate to Books Thru Bars. I think it's imperative for people who are incarcerated to have access to books for education and leisure.

"We have a word for work

"We have a word for work without pay—slavery—and we know of a work of fiction that depicts a large powerful nation that used large pools of unpaid labor to produce things: The Gulag Archipelago. Think that's hyperbole? Perhaps you should consider visiting your local state prison." Thirteenth Amendment "Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT AS A PUNISHMENT FOR CRIME WHEREOF THE PARTY SHALL HAVE BEEN DULY CONVICTED, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

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