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Books Behind Bars

What do kids do in jail? Many discover reading.

By Jane Guttman

The door slams and I enter the world of prison, with its steel doors and barbed wire. The cold buildings conceal children awaiting trial for offenses ranging from malicious mischief to murder. A grim sight, filled with shackles and sorrow.

I never expected to work in a locked facility, but here I am, peddling books to juvenile inmates, ages 9 to 19.

Imagine that your student may only be in class a total of three hours before he or she goes off to court and could spend years in prison. How can I deliver top-notch education fast, making every moment count? Time is running out for this group of learners.

The holding cell at Central Juvenile Hall is the starting point for these children. They walk silently, sometimes shackled, hands behind their backs—their dignity left with their belongings in Holding.

I met my first group on their hard bench, a place where orders are given and rules can be harsh. Trying for a dash of humanity, I shook hands and gave each student a "happy to meet you" comment.

One time, my classroom door jammed and we were locked inside, 18 incarcerated boys and I, waiting to be rescued by Probation staff. I realized in an instant the value of having adopted a genteel approach with my students. That was a long 10 minutes.

My next group was intake girls. High drama—babies left behind, custody issues in progress, current pregnancies, and battered young women. Literacy was the thread I wanted to use to hold them together, helping students focus on claiming skills to last a lifetime. It’s hard to concentrate, though, with a newborn in the ICU because your milk contains drugs.

For many of these children, jail is the ultimate teachable moment. A captive audience, they give us courtesy, a semblance of attention. Many want to learn. This could be the first time in a career of childhood chaos that they have sat still long enough to digest a lesson. If you stop by a classroom, you will be struck by the silence and the work in progress—along with an occasional outburst of violent drama directed at another student or a even teacher, turning the classroom into a danger zone.

Jane Guttman is a librarian at the San Bernardino, California, juvenile court school.

I work in the school library with kids who have never owned a book. Many are about to enter adulthood unable to read or write. Watching young men, tall and menacing, and stoic young women reading L.L. Stine, Captain Underpants, or an easy reader is an unsettling sight. They must progress beyond these literacy limitations to find their place in the world with respect and success. But they are floored by the choices we offer and the bounty of our wonderful books.

On any given day in our library, some students choose to join the readers of the world. Christopher did. Handing him a book in his cell during solitary confinement awakened an eagerness for reading. Stephen read the fifth Harry Potter book on lockup under a 24-hour suicide watch. Allie read every poetry book in our collection to ease the agony of possible lifelong incarceration.

I am working with a kid this week who is very talented in music, rap, and writing. He is young, 13, and on his way to the Youth Authority for three years. Something big happened here. I’ll follow him with more writing work, and I won’t be surprised if he has a book published on his exit.

A high school librarian once said there is a book for each child—no exceptions. Devising remedies for these students’  insurmountable problems may be beyond my abilities, but finding that book is something I can do. And a book can save a life.

Jane Guttman is a librarian at the San Bernardino, California, juvenile court school. She received a $5,000 NEA Foundation Read Across America grant this year to buy books for her facility.

Photo: Bob Riha, Jr.

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