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What does a felon in a maximum-security prison read for fun? Pretty much whatever he wants, as it turns out. Writer and librarian Holbrook Sample spent a summer working at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and his essay about the peculiar institution of the prison library is in the February edition of City Limits magazine, on newsstands across the city now.

In prison, there are few diversions as powerful as a good book. As a result, the library at Eastern is filled with bookworms, stealing copies of Shakespeare off the shelves, pestering the clerks for their interlibrary loans, poring over newspapers and magazines from as far as China and as near as Buffalo. The inmates of this maximum-security prison on the edge of the southern Catskills are doing long term sentences for crimes like murder, drug dealing and sexual assault. But many of them are also avid and determined readers, obsessed with true crime series and history novels and desperate for the latest best sellers. They have reading groups and a poetry contest; some of the inmates have even set up a clandestine black market in new paperbacks.

Sample traces the history of prison librarians from the days of bibliotherapy, when books were believed to cure men’s souls, to the current system, where books are primarily useful as sedatives that keep men out of the yard and away from the gangs.