Getting To Know Prisoners Through Books

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Jamie Niehof, an intern at the New York Public Library, blogged about her experience finding books and delivering them to prisoners at Rikers Island, New York City's main jail. Sometimes their requests are vague and librarians need to hunt the books down. Guy Raz talks to Niehof.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now a graduate student at Michigan named Jamie Niehof wasn't at today's ceremony but she did earn a degree in library science this past week, and she wrote a blog post that caught our eye.

Jamie spent a week this spring as an intern for the New York Public Library at Rikers Island. That's the main jail in New York City with a population of about 13,000 inmates.

Jamie Niehof joins me from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome.

Ms. JAMIE NIEHOF (Graduate Student, University of Michigan): Thank you.

RAZ: Now, one, I guess, one of the main things you guys would do was to get the books requested by the inmates in solitary confinement. Tell me how that works. How do they make requests and then get them to you?

Ms. NIEHOF: Okay. So, there is a list provided to the solitary confinement inmates of the books that we have available in their particular building. So, on this list they have - they are allowed to choose three books and then we take this piece of paper into this small room full of books with no organization system whatsoever.

RAZ: No Dewey Decimal System, no...

Ms. NIEHOF: Nothing.

RAZ: ...(unintelligible) out the window.

Ms. NIEHOF: Shelves of books, books in front of books in front of books. And we pick through these books to find the ones that they have requested. And then when we close the door at the end of the night, we have to lock it, because sometimes, the books tend to disappear.

RAZ: So what book or books are sort of topping the Rikers Island bestsellers list right now?

Ms. NIEHOF: Without a doubt, James Patterson...

RAZ: James Patterson.

Ms. NIEHOF: ...is the most popular. Most of the prisoners want to read James Patterson, and the books tend to get really tattered and all of the edges are ripped and they don't care at all. They just want to read James Patterson. And James Patterson is one of the reasons why the lock has to go on the cupboard because James Patterson books tend to walk away in prisons.

RAZ: Did you get a sense that a lot of prisoners at Rikers Island are readers?

Ms. NIEHOF: Absolutely. When we would walk down the hall, we would have this cart full of books piling and overflowing with books, and prisoners would be walking down the hallway next to us and most of the prisoners asked us if they could stop the cart and they could look through and they could choose a book.

RAZ: Did you ever feel, you know, unsafe?

Ms. NIEHOF: I never felt unsafe ever. I always felt like the prisoners were always so grateful that this program existed and that we were giving them the opportunity to, you know, go somewhere else for a couple of hours and they were so happy about that, that it never felt unsafe. I got asked for my phone number but I never felt unsafe.

RAZ: Oh. And did you give it out?

Ms. NIEHOF: I didn't, no, but I thought that was interesting.

RAZ: That's Jamie Niehof. She just finished an internship with the New York Public Library at Rikers Island Prison in New York City. And she just graduated from the University of Michigan.

Jamie Niehof, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. NIEHOF: No problem. Thank you.

RAZ: And you can find a link to Jamie's blog post about her experience at npr.org.

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