June 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: ‘Tales of Jailhouse Librarian’ Author Marybeth Zeman


Marybeth Zeman.

In Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time (Vinegar Hill Press, 2014), Marybeth Zeman recounts her experiences working with teenagers and young men in a suburban jail as they await trial for offenses ranging from misdemeanors to murder.

Hired as a transitional counselor for incarcerated youth, the former high school ESL teacher used a book cart stacked with donations as her library, and she witnessed the power of books to build hope and trust while working in the jail classroom. SLJ asked the author to share observations about her students, life in jail, and the criminal justice system.

Please tell us about the work you do and how you became the “unofficial” librarian.

A transitional counselor in a jail does exactly as the title implies—I help 16- to 21-year-old young men “transition” from incarceration back into their communities. Sitting down with them and figuring out where they should “transition” to are crucial parts of my job, but connecting with the boys is even more important. I can make phone calls and arrange enrollments and make big plans, but without the boys’ participation, they aren’t transitioning anywhere.

I saw young boys who were locked in cells most of the day and who struggled with the most excruciating part of being in jail—boredom. The pain and monotony of doing time. Along with being locked up, there is the intellectual imprisonment, closing off the expected youthful creativity and energy, removing the mental stimulation necessary for growth and development. I gave them books and began building a small library on a creaky wooden cart.

As I began pushing that book cart in and out of classrooms filled with boys wearing identical orange uniforms, they began responding, asking to see me, and reading a lot of books. That’s when I realized that my book cart was an opportunity for connection and engagement. That book cart and library we were building began to define my job.  An open book can be a bridge back into the community if it opens the mind. Then, transitioning can begin.

Many of the situations you describe are heartbreaking. One stands out for me; it involved a teen who was incarcerated for almost a year while awaiting trial on a misdemeanor simply because he couldn’t make $500 bail.

I spoke to this kid’s grandmother, and she was taking care of his other three siblings. She was barely making her rent, and she believed that it wouldn’t take that long for her grandson to be released. “Only about a week.” Well, weeks turned into months and months into a lot of time sitting and waiting for court cases to be heard, legal aid lawyers to be assigned, and snowstorms to come and reschedule cases.

I have boys who expect to go to court and arrive in school, Instead, they say, “I was scratched.” This boy’s case was adjourned. Until another day and another day.

You write about an administrator who suggested using cooperative learning in the classroom, but this was impossible in jail. Tell me more.

When I was an ESL teacher, I learned that cooperative, student-centered, interactive lessons were the most exciting. Students liked helping each other and were patient with one another. It’s a supportive, affirming method.

Most of the students in jail have dropped out—as early as ninth grade. Putting them in learning experiences that support them and help them succeed is important. They need a no-risk environment, one that isn’t booby trapped with tests and exams at every turn.

But safety comes before everything else in jail. The students’. The inmates’. The staff’s. The correction officers’. The facility wants to minimize the interaction between rival gang members or kids who just have a vendetta against another. Our school is a safe place even if it doesn’t have the most progressive or current teaching strategies.

Everybody’s a little safer without the cooperative learning exercises, and we can still foster cooperation. The boys learned a lot from just signing books out—some of them had never done that before. They began to understand community and cooperation. If someone didn’t return a book, you couldn’t read it. And if you didn’t, then you were denying someone the same.

I was surprised to learn that incarcerated teens have to relinquish all possessions, even books and photos, when moving to an upstate prison. One asked to change religions—to become a Rastafarian, so he won’t have to have his head shaved.

When someone knows that they are “state-ready,” they begin giving away their possessions. It doesn’t seem to bother them as much as me. I think they are at that point of surrender that mystics talk about—their world is no longer about possessions. These kids are forced to detach, to disengage from the rest of their world that’s spinning on hip-hop and sneakers and clothes. They have to shave their heads unless they are Rastafarian. The prison chaplain sees several change of religion form requests[?] a week. Eventually, an inmate can start putting new photos up in his cell and collecting letters in a box, but until he’s processed upstate, he is simply a number. Truth is, he’s always a number.

The negative consequences of solitary confinement have been given some press recently. Tell me about Ad Seg (Administrative Segregation), another term for confinement, and teens. 

In February, the New York Civil Liberties Union negotiated a change in the amount of time a juvenile can spend in Ad Seg from 24 hours to a maximum of 19 hours a day.

Truthfully, anyone is impacted by being locked in a cell for even 19 hours. What makes these situations worse is the restriction on reading material. Only a Bible or Koran are allowed. I don’t think most people realize that persons in Ad Seg are on a special diet—my students call it “cabbage loaf,” but it has a brand name, Nutraloaf, intentionally bland and unappealing, and meant to be eaten without utensils.

I was impressed with your empathy for the correction officers (COs). I had no idea of the toll the job takes on their health. Tell us about your experience working with COs.

I have nothing but respect for the men and women who are correction officers. They get a bad rap, and that’s part of the stress of their jobs—poor public image. They’re not respected by the public like police officers, and they aren’t always respected by the inmates.

That’s probably why I have so much respect for them. They sit on a powder keg all day long, never knowing if there will be some act of violence, yet they serve and protect the inmates and civilian staff. There is a one in four chance each week that a CO will be assaulted.

“Correction Officer” is listed as one of the top 10 most dangerous professions by the US Department of Labor, and working under such stressful conditions takes its toll. Their life expectancy is 59.

And yet I see COs who are compassionate and kind, who take the time to try and guide some of the younger inmates. I’ve seen a CO who has volunteered to study for the GED with some kid who has been assigned to solitary and will be missing the class instruction before the test.

Correction officers are terribly stereotyped. Still, a CO always has to watch his back.

You’ve received support from public library outreach programs. What are the most important services libraries provide or might want to expand?

Public libraries can help these kids by just listening, responding, and providing information on the resources that the public library has to offer. Be the welcome mat. These young men need the library to be a welcoming place and a nonjudgmental one. They’ve been turned away from too many public institutions before. Last year, a wonderful outreach librarian, Mary Robinson, a community services librarian at the Freeport (NY) Memorial Library, visited. Our boys were speechless—they never imagined anyone from outside the jail coming in to assist them, let alone asking them for their input on her next book order.

I’ve seen some wonderful outreach programs for the incarcerated and their families, including  support for transitioning. The more stable the individual, the safer and more secure our communities. That is good reason for public libraries to get involved.

Some of my students have never been in a public library. Give them library cards, and let them know that the public library offers free Internet, books, GED classes, ESL classes, and often job training resource centers. These are all of the things my students need after they’re released.

I’ve seen what happens when you put books in their hands. I can’t imagine what the results might be if they were offered all of that other support.

Alicia Eames is a frequent contributor to School Library Journal.



  1. Michael patterson says:

    A very timely and intelligent discussion. I found the author’s take on the stereotyped image of correction officers both enlightening and refreshing. Well done.

  2. The part about the boy held for months because his family couldn’t meet the $500 bail is heartbreaking and *common*, and why we need bail reform.

    Like the commenter above, I too was impressed by Ms. Zeman’s remarks about COs.

    The librarian at the jail where I do GED tutoring is a wonderful woman–and Ms. Zeman is so right; books, and the chance to read, make *such* a difference. I’m very much looking forward to reading Ms. Zeman’s book.