Last year, a person very close to me was sentenced to half a year’s time at Los Angeles County Jail. He asked me to send him some books to help pass the time. Inmates at County are allowed to receive new books which are shipped to them directly from Amazon, since there isn’t a library in the jail. Soon he mentioned to me that he had waiting lists of other inmates wanting to read his books once he had finished with them. The men were desperate to read, but didn’t have anyone on the outside who could send them a book. That’s when it hit me. I needed to create a library for the jail.
Along with three girlfriends, we contacted Supervisor Antonovich’s office and found out they were happy to partner with us. Numerous meetings followed between us, the Supervisor’s staff, and the Sheriff’s department which runs the Educational Based Incarceration program at L.A. County Jail.
We starting collecting books. Our local library, the Pacific Palisades branch donated hundreds of used paperbacks. Friends began cleaning out their closets and dropping off their extras. Boy Scout Troop 223 collected books for a badge. My friend’s son made ‘book collecting’ his Chapman University fraternity’s community service project, and he cleverly titled the project, “Books For Crooks.” All in, we collected over 3000 books.
Meanwhile, construction began at Men’s Central Jail. In a former inmate pod, next to the Chapel, bunks were removed and shelves were built. The walls were painted with literature quotes. Bookmarks were made, books were shelved, and the merit inmates began working in the library checking out books to those who are interested. We also organized a book cart for inmates that couldn’t make it to the library. Since, the men are welcome to keep the books if they choose, we plan to continually replenish the supply.
Last week, we were invited to the high school graduation ceremony of the first class to use our library during their educational studies. The incarcerated men and women were each allowed to invite one guest. The ceremony was held in the Chapel, with refreshments in the library afterwards. For many of them, this would be the first time in years that they could touch, hug, smell, etc., a loved one. At L.A. County, all visiting is done behind a glass partition.
The ceremony started with the inmates entering the room in their graduation caps and gowns (over their jail uniforms.) When they each spotted their guest in the audience, the look of joy in their eyes was one of pure happiness, like a child on Christmas morning. Then we all stood for the singing of the national anthem. When the inmates sang, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I realized that although they weren’t physically free, they had hope. That’s why they were getting a high school diploma. They had hope.
The teachers stood up and said a remark or two about each student, then handed him/her a diploma. The female inmates had curled their hair and put on make up. Everyone looked so young, they were all “children”. Children who had made mistakes. There was one older gentleman getting a diploma. Everyone cheered when his name was called. He was the outlier.
I understand that many of these inmates have committed crimes which have harmed other people. I’ve had friends tell me that they don’t deserve to have a book, and they should rot in a cell as punishment. My feeling is that every human being deserves the chance to read. As a former teacher, I know the value that a book can have when it transports your mind to a different place, opens up a world you never imagined existed, teaches you a lesson, provides a new perspective, or eases your burden. If we want our inmates to live peacefully together, and also to be ready to face the world when they are released, they must be allowed and must be encouraged to read.
Another great program in the L.A. County Jail is Jail Guitar Doors, music for inmates. Here are the teachers singing an old Irish prison hymn.