The Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue houses up to 759 people. In Sunset Park, the federal Brooklyn MDC holds nearly 2,500 detainees.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

The Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue houses up to 759 people. In Sunset Park, the federal Brooklyn MDC holds nearly 2,500 detainees.

“In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies—so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner: ‘My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake I implore you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all.'”
-from “The Bet,” by Anton Chekov,
a story about a man who agrees to spend 15 years in total isolation
to prove that prison is preferable to death

What would you do with your free time if you were in jail or prison? Read, probably. But being able to do that would depend on getting regular access to books that interest you—something that’s not a given within the controlled confines of Rikers Island, the other municipal jails, or the state and federal facilities in town that, all told, hold 16,000 people on a given day.

The city’s libraries are expanding their efforts to serve that incarcerated population. The New York Public Library served 11,000 prisoners at Rikers Island and other facilities in fiscal 2012. WIth three staff members, the correctional services office runs book borrowing and family literacy programs, operating five satellite libraries–four on Rikers and a fifth at the downtown Manhattan Detention Center.

The Queens Library works with the state prison system, tracking down books for non-English speakers behind bars. “The prison librarians do not necessarily read in the language requested and have no idea what the book is, and whether it is permissible,” says spokeswoman Joanne King. “We at Queens Library do>/i> have librarians who speak most immigrant languages and are able to provide books for them that meet prison content guidelines.” The Queens system also pitches post-release services like ESL and job-readiness training to inmates wrapping up their time at the state’s Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City, King says.

And the Brooklyn Public Library is building a prison-services program for inmates at the city-run Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Complex (MDC) on Atlantic Avenue and for federal detainees at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park.

“We’re building the service up from scratch,” says Nicholas Higgins, who runs outreach services for the Brooklyn Library, the office that oversees correctional services. He previously ran the correctional program for the NYPL. While crediting “a really solid partnership with the Department of Correction and Bureau of Prisons,” Higgins says, “It’s a challenge getting people up to speed in Brooklyn,” including steps as simple as making sure the doors at the facilities are opened when librarians come knocking.

Higgins says the Brooklyn service now consists of a cart that gets pushed around the facilities and can hold 200 to 300 books. “We’d much prefer to have a standing library so folks can come down and browse the selection,” he says—not just because it’d offer a wider choice of books, but also so the library would look a little less institutional. Right now, the book cart looks a lot like the meal cart and the medicine cart that also make their rounds.

Given the limited space on the cart, jail librarians select their offerings based on what inmates have favored in the past. “Popular fiction, career readiness, computer training—what flies off the shelf at our jail libraries are the same books who that fly off the shelves at our branches,” Higgins says. James Patterson and John Grisham novels—airport fiction, you might say—is a big hit. One type of book that’s more popular on “the inside” is dictionaries, which inmates use to decode legal documents and draft letters.

One aspect of jail libraries that is definitely distinct? The trend toward digital library offerings is non-existent. “There’s no anxiety about the death of the book or print at all where we are,” Higgins says. E-readers would be impractical in a jail; and besides, print has shown itself to be viral behind bars. “It’s a system where people share material. You walk back next week into the same housing area and everyone has read the book and wants to read the next book in the series. “

But the jail library effort is embracing some new technology. Higgins is working with the MDC to set up a “televisit” service that would allow an inmate’s family to come to a public library and read a book with the inmate via closed-circuit video.

BPL collects books in English, Spanish, Chinese and Russian for jail use. If a prisoner wants a book that’s not on the cart, the service tries to get it. The books largely come from donations. “Having a dedicated line or budget line for book purchases is not a unique need for jail libraries,” Higgins notes.

(Incidentally, if you want to donate, contact the library system first to make sure you send something they need. NYPL’s coordinator of correctional services, Sarah Ball, can be reached at and Higgins’ email is

Obviously, not all books are fair game for borrowers behind bars. Writing about gang terminology or signs, guides to fashioning weapons and the like are verboten. If a guard or captain sees something on the cart they think is troubling, “we’ll have a discussion about it,” Higgins says. “But it rarely happens.”

What does happen often is inmates talking about or even sharing samples from books they’ve penned themselves.. “Everybody seems to have a story,” Higgins says. “There are definitely some writers out there who are trying to put their stories to book form. Sometimes we get manuscripts passed to us. “

This post is part of an ongoing project looking at the potential for New York’s libraries to fill a critical gap in our civic infrastructure, as well as the challenges and difficult choices the library systems face. It is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation. Read the full project here.