The Prison Library


The Prison Library

One thing that I knew would help me get through the days and years was a book. Now that I was off Intake, I could check out a book from the prison library and read myself to sleep. As a child, I had started with A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh, grew up with Ponyboy from the Outsiders, diversified as a curious young adult with Anais Nin, later I fell in love with David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor.

The Prison Library
Pooh in an illustration by E. H. Shepard

Waiting for the library call-out after dinner, I thought back to the rolling cart “library” in jail. It held about thirty books and looked as though the women had chewed on the pages during drug withdrawal. In Solitary, I read that damn toothpaste tube over and over, playing memory games to keep my brain from turning to mush. The prison library just had to be better. I walked the long shiny corridor toward the library door and turned the handle.

I entered a large room with of about 1,000 worn book spines on the shelves. I was flooded with relief. It smelled like a library. The women spoke in unexpected whispers. I’m gonna make it. Romance novels took up an entire wall, floor to ceiling. The second largest category was crime novels, no surprise. There was a fiction shelf above a dusty section of classics. I bent down to investigate the titles of all the books I was suppose to read and love. Moby Dick, War and Peace. I picked up Don Quixote. I certainly had the time.

A woman shuffled past, observing my search. “I know I am supposed to read that stuff, but I am locked up and miserable enough.”

Touché. I put back Don Quixote.

I turned the corner along the chest high shelves in the center of the room and saw the non-fiction area. First reference books: craft books, Martha Stewart—our home girl, with her Holiday entertainment books. There was a long low shelf of ancient encyclopedias. There was an ample supply of self-help books. Well here ya go, Karen. AA, NA, parenting, domestic violence and depression, all a reflection of incarcerated women.

I circled the room and ended up in the mystery/crime section. Smack dab at eye level was my friend Janet Evanovitch. I read her books while awaiting trial so I could run away into a book. I liked the sexual intrigue between her hunky boyfriend Morelli and the dark and brooding Ranger. There was a woman standing next to me, looking at the same section. She was talking to herself.

“Sandra Brown, score! Here’s a new one!” She looked over at me with a wild crooked grin. Her eyes were slightly off, one drifting to the side.  The Moe hair cut of the Three Stooges was just plain overkill. One of her eyes looked at the shelves, “None of these are about bank robbin’. That’s what I did.”

The Prison Library
“Female Bank Robber”

“Wow.” I thought of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. “Can I ask how you did it?”

“I used a note.” She was still looking at me that wild grin.

“A note!” I said. “What else? A gun? A knife?”

“No. Just a note.” She deflated.

“You just walked in with a note?” 


“Must’ve been a helluva note,” I offered.

She looked up, her roaming eyes more flat. “It just said, ‘This is a robbery. Give me your money.’” She paused a moment. “I must have really been high. I guess that’s why I’m here,”

“Well,” I said, “You’re in the right section—Crime novels. Maybe you could learn a trick or two?”

She grunted, took her book and made her way to the clerk’s table.

“Five minutes!” the library cop shouted.

I took just one of Janet Evanovitch’s books, saving the others for another day. On my way out, I looked around for Garrison Keillor or David Sedaris. No luck. I asked the inmate clerk how to get books from my family.

“Your family has to use an outside book source like Amazon,” said the inmate library clerk, Wise Owl. “They can’t send books in directly because DOC is afraid they would hide a hacksaw, drugs and cell phones in the pages.” She look at me with an expression that said, our life has come to this. What the hell happened?

I reluctantly left the library and walked as slow as I could without drawing the attention of the hallway Sargent or the over head cameras. Hacksaws indeed.

The Prison Library