A Glimpse of Life on the Inside: Reflections on Rikers Island Correctional Library Service
The typical reaction I received from many co-workers after telling them that I wanted to go to Rikers Island was, “...why? Isn’t that dangerous?” I considered that question. Would it be dangerous? Quite possibly... but after meeting with prison librarians Nick Higgins and Luis Torres, taking a trip with them out to Rikers Island was never far from my mind. Several times each week as part of the library’s Correctional Services Program, Nick and Luis alternate going out to Rikers Island and to other facilities in order to offer books to incarcerated inmates. Each week, Nick and Luis bring much needed volunteers to aid them. On March 3rd, I was one of those volunteers.
I’m not sure exactly what I thought would happen when I took my first trip out to Rikers. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was unsure what would happen. Part of me was excited for a new adventure. The other part of me kept remembering all those co-workers who warned me it might be dangerous. I just kept thinking to myself that, without the library’s involvement, many of the people I met that day probably wouldn’t be able to get their hands on a book. There’s something that kind of upsets me about that. I believe that everyone should get the chance to read.
I spent the afternoon in the George R. Vierno Center, or the GRVC, for short. The prison provides a modest storage space for books and magazines, almost all of which are donations. Along with Mr. Torres, a volunteer from the Brooklyn Public Library and a retired NYPL librarian rounded out our motley crew. In about three hours my group was able to visit three separate cell blocks. To say that the prisoners were glad to see us would be an understatement. Generally, each inmate is offered one book and one magazine. Many fast readers were disappointed; they wanted more books than that. We got asked a lot when would be the next that we could return.
We began visiting each block by asking for book returns. Then, each volunteer provided a book for interested inmates after this was completed. I helped a total of 34 prisoners to “check out” a book. One prisoner told me that it wasn’t until he came to prison, and the library started visiting, that he learned how to read. Many of the inmates were voracious in their reading appetites. Everything from James Patterson to Nora Roberts was popular, from books on war to books on philosophy. Comic books were favorites, as well as one inmate who loved the Warhammer sci-fi series.
In the end, I was really glad I got the chance to go to Rikers Island. It proved to be a worthwhile and rewarding experience. Many of the prisoners I met on this day were respectful, even polite, as I attempted to help them select a book to read. It was also very heartening to see so many of the inmates want not just a book, but as many books at they could get their hands on. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to go back soon. For me, this brought home what a much needed service it is and how it needs support. Learn how you can get involved.