memoir · nonfiction

Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian- Jill Grunenwald

When I went searching through my library’s online card catalog for Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard by Laura Bates, I came across another book that hadn’t hit the shelves yet but was available to request, and so I did. Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald (Skyhorse, 2019) ticked so many of my pet subject boxes: prisons, libraries, reading, reading in prison, prison libraries, books about reading. I wasn’t the only one in line, though, so I ended up waiting for probably around six weeks or so before I received the email to come and pick up my book. (Who ARE you other local readers? We could be such good friends!)

Fresh out of library school at a time when the economy stank more than a swampy landfill baking in the August sun, Jill Grunenwald applies for job after job and receives nothing, until the day she applies for a job as a librarian in a correctional facility. The ad is so vaguely worded that Jill doesn’t realize she was applying to work in a prison until later. As it stands, her first days on the job are marked by deep anxiety- what on earth is she doing as a prison librarian?

The job takes all of Jill’s wits and more; while her facility is minimum-security, there are still men who will take advantage of anything they can. Public masturbation is indeed a thing in prison (not just for public transportation anymore! Ugh); librarian-signed permission letters aren’t enough to make it okay for an inmate to take safety scissors back to his cell; breaking your elbow while rollerblading is NOT conducive to safety while working behind bars. There are good days and bad days, little wins and setbacks. Being a prison librarian is a unique job, and Jill shares the ups and downs in the pages of this memoir.


Reading Behind Bars is worth a read alone for the subject matter (and if you’re interested, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg is probably right up your alley as well). Working a non-security position at a prison is pretty interesting, and the ins and outs of the protocols Ms. Grunenwald had to follow in order to maintain safety standards for both herself and the inmates added a little flavor to the story…at first. And then the repetition began to feel pedantic and tiresome. What the memoir lacks is a more personal touch, of how the author grew and changed and was changed by her experiences in the prison. I didn’t feel like I knew her any better by the last page (although I liked her; she totally seems like the kind of person I’d love to hang out with!), nor did I get a true sense of what her time at the prison meant to her, and I would have liked to.

I did enjoy reading about about how she needed to update the entire (and non-existent, when she arrived) online book catalog, along with entering the enormous stacks of donated books. While she was outlining what a horrible amount of work it would be, and such drudgery, I was practically salivating over the prospect (I had to do something similar with the entire catalog of movies in the video rental store I worked in as a teenager. WHY YES, I AM OLD, THANK YOU. Another teenage employee and I tackled the project and got it done in a ridiculously short amount of time, and I enjoyed every last second of it). Personally, I would have enjoyed reading more about this project and any other efforts she made to improve the library, especially since I think it’s fairly well-known that prison libraries aren’t exactly a priority for the institutions that house them (and lately, prisons have been making the news for removing books; you can read about one such case here; I’ll be over here with my blood boiling).

Speaking of which, another section I liked was her discussion over her discomfort of the constant censorship of material in prison; I could entirely relate to and understand that. I may not agree with certain books and some subject matter, but I would never try to stop anyone from reading them, and I can imagine that being required to do that by one’s employer would start to itch like a too-tight wool sweater before long. These too are sections that make the book worth a read. I’ve come across some interesting discussions about this on Library Twitter (I really do love libraries in every form!), so if you haven’t delved into censorship as a topic of study, Ms. Grunenwald lays out some fabulous examples that will hopefully get the hamster in your head racing in its wheel, so that you’ll be as incredulous as I am that prison libraries are out there banning Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. WTAF.

Anyway, while this wasn’t exactly the book I was hoping it would be, I still enjoyed it for the look it gave me into a place I’ll (hopefully!) never be- definitely not as a librarian, because I can’t afford school and my crummy back makes me the world’s largest liability, and hopefully never as an inmate!

Visit Jill Grunenwald’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

One thought on “Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian- Jill Grunenwald

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