One recent winter's afternoon, a librarian pushes a 200-pound, book-laden trolley along a windowless corridor toward a metal door. She waits a few seconds as the door slowly grinds to the left, then pushes the cart into Delta 1, the Salt Lake County jail unit that houses 80 male prisoners. There's a palpable tension as men stand in cell doorways awaiting her arrival.
Every few weeks, a staff member of the Salt Lake County Library Services based at the Metro Jail brings a trolley brimming with books and magazines to the kitchen-worker housing unit—one of 38 units the library delivers to at the Metro and Oxbow lockups. Each of the unit's cells houses eight men. The first group of prisoners in green scrubs lines up to hand over books they have read and collect the up-to-six items they've ordered.
Within 20 minutes, cells that were earlier full of morose, silent men have taken on a coffee-bar atmosphere as prisoners at metal tables or on metal-framed bunk beds devour the first pages of their books, or excitedly compare what they requested.
Jared Kendall, 45, says divorce "sent me off the wagon." He is awaiting sentencing on a theft conviction and says that "if it wasn't for those books, there'd be so much fighting going on." The impact of an in-house library service goes far beyond providing an escape from tedium. Kendall describes his multiple stints of incarceration as "installments," during which he has learned from books how to draw. He displays a number of highly detailed, professional-looking pencil illustrations he's drawn. "Books help everybody go from a street thug," he says, to, in his case, learning about "hand-to-eye coordination, how to draw." He got an architecture degree on the outside and ran his own welding company before succumbing to old habits and incarceration in 2015.
While the Utah State Prison has six walk-in libraries with 60,000 books and a total book budget of $37,500, the county lockup is one of few, if any, incarceration facilities in Utah housing a county-run branch. Most jails boast some form of library, but they tend to offer a much-worn collection of haphazard titles overseen either by a prisoner or a staff member with other assignments to juggle. Utah Library Association President Dustin Fife says, "When you have a little jail library with a few hundred books, there's a good chance most of it is not something you care about, not stuff to help you grow, get to where you want to be in your life."
In June 2015, Fife, then working at the San Juan County Library, started visiting the 115-bed San Juan County Adult Detention Center once a week to help prisoners choose books and deliver their requests.
Salt Lake County Metro Jail library manager Vernon Waters says he can't imagine a more "underserved population than jails and prisons." The average reading level at the jail, he says, is "about a fifth-grade level." While some might express the view that jail is for punishment rather than rehabilitation, Waters tries to convey in a class to correction officers in training at the Utah Corrections Academy the importance of reading to prisoners. "I'd guess that some officers feel like my ex-wife feels that prisoners shouldn't have books," he says.
The Salt Lake County Metro Jail houses approximately 1,900 prisoners. Its library occupies a small, windowless room with a collection that numbers between 20,000 and 30,000 titles, two-thirds of which at any given time are with prisoners. Trolleys crammed with paperbacks line the wall outside the library room, while 10 walls of shelves inside boast fiction and nonfiction. Waters supervises five county staff members who negotiate the small space with the three female prisoners tasked with "thumbing" the books for contraband, graffiti and wear and tear, before shelving them.
The library is a key element in a series of programs including one called Life Skills, where prisoners learn about, among other things, checkbook management, parenting and first aid, computer skills and how to earn a GED. "We try to help folks be better when they come out," Lt. Rebecca Greene says. She says the library is invaluable, providing a "diversion for prisoners, tools for education used by program staff and a resource for custodial staff to use as a reward for good behavior."
The stacks are divided into fiction and nonfiction, the former's bumpy spines amply testifying to repeated reading. "Men love George [R.R.] Martin, Stephen King," Waters says, while women prisoners prefer true crime and nonfiction. The most popular magazine among men is Cosmopolitan. "For the slightly titillating stories," one staff member says, referring to sex-themed pieces Cosmo is known for.
Prisoners receive orange forms listing 36 categories they can tick, ranging from "street fiction," "self esteem/feel good" and "romance" to "business/jobs," "classics" and "graphic novels."
"Street fiction" dominates some of the library's fiction shelves. Waters and Greene both note that street fiction, a recent publishing phenomenon featuring lurid titles and pulpy, street-smart narratives with cautionary, moral endings, often provides an entry point prisoners to take them in more literary directions. "They start reading urban fiction, then they want more substance," Waters says. Darnell Cockle is at the jail on a possession charge. He started reading "street fiction"—stories that he could identify with, he says—but now favors true crime.
Prisoners also can request specific titles, which, if not available, can be purchased through Waters' $37,000-plus book budget. Some reading material is off-limits, including books about "Guns, bombs, martial arts, tattoos, illegal drugs, gambling, white supremacy, sex or explicit material," according to a leaflet given to new prisoners.
Only female prisoners can work at the library, for which they get "good time" reductions on their sentences. One of the women describes reading as "an escape, really. In housing, when I get emotional, moody days, when I'm not prepared to deal with stupidity, I plunge into a book."
In an age where modern libraries are as much about information technology as access to culture, the jail library is decidedly old-fashioned in its sole focus on books. The jail brings a different dimension to being a librarian, Waters says. He gets "kites," or letters, from prisoners that run the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking, such as one from a 45-year-old man who wrote, Waters recalls, "he had never read a book from cover to cover before."
Sometimes, prisoner stories have a happy ending. Greene cites one woman who attended a jail tour who had a surprising knowledge of the lockup's terminology. She later got an email from her saying that the woman had done time at the jail, but now worked as a library services supervisor. Those are the stories Greene loves to hear.
Others, however, do not learn from their mistakes, much to the frustration of the librarians, who see shelvers they were sure would make it on the outside, return. "It's kind of heartbreaking to talk to these prisoner workers," Waters says. "It's almost like [jail is] in their DNA. They always talk about their relatives, what different jails they've been in, what a stint in prison is like."
Waters feels the library services help improve the odds of prisoners not returning. "There's such a focus in the jail at trying to help people develop some skills, help with their goals, or simply pass their time with reading," he says.
Waters gives a Life Skills class about using the Salt Lake County Library website. Prisoners fill out applications and get library cards when they're released. That card can come in handy for those who believe the myth, "that if you don't finish a book before you get released, then you're destined to come back to finish it," Waters says, shaking his head. "I tell them, 'No.' Just get it at a regular library."