Working in a prison library is an interesting experience. I’ve worked in public libraries and in academic libraries and I’d have to say that, for me, prison library work is the toughest I’ve done so far. The environment is certainly a unique one and though I’m happy to have experienced it, it isn’t the sector that I intend to devote a career to.
A prison is a closed community and as such the library takes on a unique role. Prisons are about as close as one can get to a closed system of human society: the prisoners occupy separate houses, have separate social groups, and are relatively self-sustaining within that environment. I was particularly interested to learn that prisoners cook their own group meals: I previously imagined the prison canteen of The Shawshank Redemption or a metal plate thrown into a cell like The Count of Monte Cristo. So the prisoners interact as if the prison is a small community like a village. The library thus takes on a central role – a community hub where prisoners from different houses can freely congregate to socialise, educate, or entertain themselves. The prison library plays the role of community centre much like the role of public libraries a few decades ago (a role now arguably taken by the Internet but that’s a post for another time). Devoid of individual external comforts and entertainment mechanisms, prisoners turn to the values of community that were so important to our forebears.
Working in the prison library was therefore comparable to working in a particularly busy public library. There was a lot of zipping through the computer system, putting the right things in the right places, and chatting with (occasionally moody) customers. During my work, I had a pervading feeling of intruding on a community. The prisoners all knew one another and it was in fact the prisoner orderlies who did most of the work: I merely supervised and chipped in to help. The orderlies knew everything, joked with everyone, recommended books, and could easily run the library on their own.
My interaction with the orderlies was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the work. They were wonderful people: friendly and cheerful. But all the while, I could hear a nagging voice in my mind wondering what they’d done; why they were here and not outside running a small public library.
One of the more fascinating social quirks of the prison was the idea of tabula rasa. Unlike in movies where “What are you in for?” is the first question the prison-sentenced hero is asked, in a real prison offences committed on the outside are unimportant. Like in Lost where the character’s pasts aren’t important on the island; where the island gives everyone chance for a fresh start. Unless someone makes it an issue, outside offences are ignored and even avoided in discussion. It’s as if what happened on the outside is incidental; as if by pretending that their community isn’t based on legally enforced punishment, the prisoners thereby make themselves freer – if only in their own minds. Who can say that any one of us wouldn’t choose denial over despair?
So the enduring question from interacting with the orderlies – people just like you or me – was ‘What separates me from them?’ Did they make bad choices or did they get pushed down a path to destruction? Why do I get to come home at night and write my thoughts on the Internet when they have to stay behind the imposing metal gates of Her Majesty’s Prison Service? If I had been in their position, where would I be now?