Jail Library Group works to bring reading to inmates

April 30, 2014

by Sean Kirkby

Book processing

A group of students and volunteers with the Jail Library group helps to process books. The group aims to broaden inmates' access to reading material.

Anna Wigtil is a member of a group that spends a few hours every weekend in jail.

Wigtil, a second-year student in the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) master’s program, helps facilitate the Jail Library Group at Dane County’s Public Safety Building. Every weekend, volunteers circulate library carts filled with donated books and magazines among the jail’s inmates and fulfill book requests.

“One thing that kind of strikes me still now is just how much work we can get done and how much it affects our volunteers’ professional development,” Wigtil, the group’s treasurer, says.

While many prisons have their own libraries, few county jails have the resources to offer their inmates books and magazines. The Jail Library Group provides Dane County inmates with reading material.

The Jail Library Group consists of volunteers who serve not only the county jail located in the Public Safety Building, but also one located in the City-County Building. Its members come from all backgrounds and include retirees, graduate students and university staff.

Volunteers built and sustain the collection of donated books that they provide to inmates at the correctional facilities, says Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, a second-year master’s student in SLIS.

Jail Library Group sorts books

Volunteers sort books in the library. "You find yourself surprised too by how much you become invested in trying to fill some of the requests," says Erin Anthony, the group's co-president.

Community members can donate books into one of the two donation bins, one outside of the College Library and the other in the SLIS library on the fourth floor of Helen C. White Hall. The group also maintains an Amazon wish list, filled with frequently requested titles.

While some of the collection comes from donations, much of it also comes from fundraising, which includes book sales that help pay the cost of magazine subscriptions.

Urban fiction, such as the work of Donald Goines who pioneered the genre, is popular, but inmates are also interested in dictionaries, thesauruses and other reference materials. Books on writing resumes as well as SAT, ACT and GED preparatory manuals are also in high demand.

“We have people who really want almanacs and books that you wouldn’t think of, and you’re always surprised,” says Erin Anthony, co-president of the Jail Library Group. “You find yourself surprised too by how much you become invested in trying to fill some of the requests. If someone asks for something really unique, you want to be able to fill it.”

Anthony, a second year SLIS master’s student, says the ability to either fill that request or substitute can make a difference for the inmate. She notes that the organization also strives to build awareness on campus of jail conditions through sponsoring movies and other gatherings for people to meet and talk.

The Jail Library Group was founded in 1992 by Mike Exum, who was a graduate student studying education at the time, and Michele Besant, who was a SLIS master’s student, but is now a senior special librarian and associate director of SLIS.

Besant says the project originally served the jail located in the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building. In 1994, the Dane County Library Services partnered with the Jail Library Group and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and received a grant for a collection in the Public Safety building.

Besant says while spaces for holding books have shifted over time, SLIS students continue to play a vital role in an important campus-community collaboration.

The organization is also a cosponsor of Kids’ Connection, which helps inmates make a recording of them reading a book. The recording is sent, along with a copy of the book, to the inmates’ children.

Each month, the organization holds a processing party in the SLIS library, where group members stamp donations with the Jail Library Group’s name and clean out magazines and books of any information that could identify previous owners.

If you’re interested in donating to the library group or want more information on how to help, you can contact the group through jaillibrarygroup@gmail.com, like its Facebook page or follow it on Twitter.