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Library, Sheriff Unlock Literary Choices at Jail

Ideas and collaboration lead to expansion and new catalog

 

San Rafael, CA – Inmates at the Marin County Jail have had access to a modest selection of books for many years. What was missing was a catalog or database to show the incarcerated patrons what else was available if it wasn’t on the shelves.  

A collaboration between employees of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and the Marin County Free Library (MCFL) recently solved the situation, and it’s a page-turner of a story to tell.  

America Velasco, a program coordinator for the Sheriff’s Custody Division team who was hired in November 2018, was eager to improve the selection of materials and create a catalog for the inmates. There were about 2,000 books and a selection of educational DVDs within the jail. With a few ideas in mind, she first talked with Custody Division Reentry Sgt. Michael Dobbins. With his encouragement, Velasco walked up to the information desk at the Civic Center library branch one day in January 2019.

“There are inmates in our custody who escape their reality by reading books, and I wanted to provide them with books from various genres to choose from,” Velasco said. “It’s important for me to know what type of books we have and how many available copies we have to better assist the inmates, so a catalog was needed.”

Elmer Jan, one of the branch’s librarians, remembers the first exchange with Velasco. They both realized it was going to be a tedious and extensive project to catalog each item.

“I expressed an interest in working with America to explore what projects we could address together and so began researching how other public libraries provide service to county jails,” he said.

“I was surprised by their excitement, but I was excited to have Elmer and the rest of his peers on board,” Velasco said.

Jan’s research connected him to the San Francisco Public Library Jail and Reentry Services division staffed by library program manager Rachel Kinnon and librarian Jeanie Austin, who generously shared their resources and experiences.

In May, Jan started visiting the jail on Monday mornings to spend two hours organizing the library materials into genres. He is creating a survey to find out what type of books the inmates would like to read, and Velasco is proactively “weeding” books in poor shape from the jail archive and has initiated a subscription to the Libib cataloging website. MCFL has begun donating new books in direct response to specific inmate requests.

What’s popular? Books on World War II, astronomy, other nonfiction, historical fiction and works by author James Patterson.

“With the library taking patron requests and our response to those requests with Sara Jones’ support, I feel extremely gratified that we have begun providing library service to an underserved population,” said Jan, who is in his 19th year working for MCFL. 

At the jail, Velasco normally oversees educational programs, religious services, community resources presentations, training programs and the volunteer program. She evaluates program effectiveness and creates and maintains the program scheduling in all the housing units. With that much interaction with inmates, she already knows the library upgrades are being received well.

“Once we explain to the inmates that we are creating a library catalog and expanding the selection, they are excited about having access to more books than the ones in their housing unit,” she said.

MCFL Director Sara Jones the departmental collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office represents the County’s commitment to equity measures.

“It demonstrates how we can tailor services to create access to information and provides reading materials to those who have limited options,” she said. “It’s rewarding whenever we use the skills of library staff to meet our mission for inclusion for all people in Marin.”

To learn more about supporting the jail library, call 415-473-3203. The nonprofit Friends of the Marin County Free Library supports many other MCFL programs.

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