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!