Popular books are easily identified at the Houston County Jail’s library. Paper spines are worn and sometimes reinforced with a label removed from a deodorant bottle – an inmate’s attempt to protect a book with what they have on hand.
Pretty much anything by Joyce Meyer is hard to keep on the shelves for long. Self-help books are also in high demand as are religious books. And then there’s “Mary, Mary” by James Patterson. It’s pretty much always checked out.
“Our desire is that these books are going not just to help them spend their time, but as they spend their time reading, help make them better and be productive…,” said Houston County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Joey Holland.
Holland is in charge of the jail’s library – a small room near the jail’s main entrance with shelves lined with fiction and non-fiction books available for inmates to check out every two weeks.
Of the 1,400 titles in the library’s collection, there are books by John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Nicholas Sparks, and Danielle Steel. There’s a little Shakespeare and some Mark Twain. Biographies are popular, especially those on Johnny Cash. And there are self-help books on parenting, relationships, and co-dependency.
The library began lending books about eight months ago. Inmates can access a digital library catalog through kiosks in each inmate pod. They’re the same kiosks inmates use to make commissary and chaplain requests. Library software purchased by the jail allows inmates to identify the books they want.
Since the jail library opened earlier this year, the number of available books has doubled and interest among inmates has grown, Holland said.
When he got approval from command staff to purchase the software and organize the library, Holland reached out to the Dothan-Houston County Library System for guidance. There, he found the Friends of the Library, a group of willing volunteers, some of them retired librarians more than happy to put their skills to work.
Friends of the Library volunteers come to the jail every two weeks to organize the library and fill a book cart so that Holland can deliver the books to inmates.
“A quarter of what is checked out is either religious or self-help,” said Jane Belsches of the Friends of Library. “This really tells you that they’re seeking to get out of this situation.”
Books have to be approved before they are added to the catalog and only paperback books are used in the jail library. The week after Thanksgiving, the Friends of the Library will have a giving tree at the Westgate Library with a wish list of books that are in demand.
Inmates are allowed to check out books every two weeks. After the initial two weeks, they have the option to check out the same book another two times for six weeks total. Inmates can also put books on reserve so that when the title becomes available, they’ll be on the list to get it next.
There are about 190 titles checked out every two weeks among an inmate population that stays between 300 and 400.
Holland said he couldn’t do the library without help from the Friends of the Library and the support of command staff like Sheriff Donald Valenza, Maj. Bill Rafferty, and Jail Commander James Brazier. And while delivering the books to inmates can take up an entire day every two weeks, Holland doesn’t mind. It’s another chance for him to connect with inmates. Delivery takes as long as it does because often inmates stop him to talk about something else.
“It’s really a dual thing for me,” Holland said. “It’s not just about the books.”