Book Suggestion: Reading Behind Bars

I feel like it was another life ago that I ran in the Oregon State Penitentiary. A life before COVID, a life before breast cancer, but the years don’t take away the fond memories I have of my time behind the walls in Salem, Oregon. I was blogging with Run Oregon and one of the guys there suggested that I go try the Oregon State Penitentiary Run, an event that was organized and run by the inmates. I laughed at the suggestion, probably out loud, because it’s so far off my radar and definitely out of my comfort zone. My friend said it was a life-changing experience so I decided to see what it was all about. I signed up and come to find out Steve Prefontaine even participated in the OSP Run- they have a large picture of him at the prison to honor him. I’m not sure it changed my life, but it most certainly gave me a brand new perspective of life behind bars.

I recently read a book called Reading Behind Bars by Jill Grunenwald and not only did it take me back to my runs in the yard, but it gave me yet another perspective from a civilian in prison. Jill Grunenwald graduated in 2008 with a master’s degree in library science and couldn’t wait to join the workforce as a librarian. Unfortunately, with the Great Recession, full-time jobs with benefits were scarce. After a whole lot of searching, she finally came across one job that would utilize her degree: a prison librarian at a men’s minimum security prison. She shares her experience with her time as a prison librarian.

I enjoyed hearing the ins and outs of the prison library gig, but I also thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor and pop culture references. She loves Harry Potter, I’m sure most librarians do, and she even made a Star Wars reference. I had to laugh when she described a bat in the jail library as well as her frustration with the limited reading options for the inmates. Many of these men would be released at some point and education would be a huge part of helping them with a successful re-entry into society. We want them well-read and able to find work when they get out and a library provides that. Grunenwald was somewhat frustrated with just how dated most of their books were, many of them were still using the encyclopedias. As long as it was appropriate, they could borrow more contemporary literature from other libraries, but it wasn’t as easy as walking into the library and checking it out.

I was impressed that she shared her naivety, particularly at the beginning. Somehow, she allowed an inmate to talk her into allowing him to take library scissors back to his cell. Obviously, that was against the rules, not to mention incredibly dangerous. The inmate explained that the previous librarian would allow him to take supplies back to his cell to work on re-binding books there. Horrible, horrible idea, yet she thought that if the last librarian allowed it, then it was probably alright. It meant he could help get more books into circulation and she had no reason to think he was lying.

Thank goodness nothing major came out of that, I had to jump ahead just to make sure. It stressed me out that much. It definitely taught her that she wasn’t dealing with the little kids she had helped when she volunteered at her local library. No bending of the rules in prison, no matter how convincing someone might be. Not only was she in charge of cataloging the books in the library and overseeing it in general, she was also in charge of the men who would come and work in the library. One of them being the young man re-binding books. Talk about never a dull moment. She had to learn their antiquated system and prove to the men that she was tough enough to handle the job.

This book was all sorts of entertaining, but I really loved her writing style. She made me laugh telling the story of a BAT in the library, made me feel for her with the old building they were in and temperature extremes, but mostly it made me think which is always a sign of a good book. She had to wrestle with the inmates not being able to read whatever they wanted. To a degree, they were allowed to censor certain subjects. I know it’s a slippery slope, but I kinda wish there was more of that in the real world. When I was a teenager, I came across a White Supremacist Manual at my local Tower Records store. I was infuriated, complained to the cashier, wrote a letter to the company and told everyone I knew to not shop there. It was a sad lesson for me. I respect freedom of speech, but I think it comes with responsibility.

The Oregon State Penitentiary Run is a way to encourage the inmates to be on their best behavior, not just anyone can participate. It also teaches the inmates how to organize an event with everything from a deejay, to lap counters and guys providing snacks. It’s giving them confidence to learn and practice things they will do when they are released which is so important. Education is also another important piece to provide to increase their chances of a successful new life when they get out. It benefits all of us for prisoners to get the necessary education and job skills to prevent falling into old patterns upon their release. That’s why programs like the OSP Run and prison libraries are so important.

Grunenwald gave a unique look at the prison library system in Reading Behind Bars. I loved the book for that reason alone, but her pop culture references and sense of humor made it hard to put down. She’s moved on from her prison gig, but I thought it was fun that she discovered both of her great grandparents had worked in a prison, so I guess it was a family thing.

Reading Behing Bars A True Story of Literature, Law and Life as a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald.

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