Former bookshop owner Patricia Morrison explains her passion for getting the right books into prisons.
After owning Marsden Books, a “real” bookshop in Karori, Wellington, for 12 years, I had serious misgivings about how I would feed my book obsession. Initially it seemed the answer might be to read – in the daylight – my vast collection of “books to read before I die”. However, a friend suggested I volunteer in one of the local prison libraries. I jumped at the chance, and, after the required security checks, was approved to assist in the library at Arohata Prison for Women. I spent a rewarding couple of years there.
Then, around 2003, I was invited to a meeting at Rimutaka where the inspirational Prisoner Services Manager Michael Lovett wanted to set up a “proper” library. And thus began my serious and continuing involvement in prison libraries throughout the country.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that “every institution shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it”. A 2005 Ombudsman’s report required the Department of Corrections to take whatever steps were necessary to ensure this requirement was met.
Back then, the Rimutaka Prison book resource consisted of boxes of books in each unit, so the task was to shift the books to a purpose-built library and, with a serious injection of funds, purchase appropriate stock. The prison’s muster number has now doubled to near 1000, and it has a wonderful library and a paid library administrator, who is assisted by prisoner librarians. This is a much sought-after job within the prison system.
Purchasing books brought me back in contact with the book trade, and I was again in touch with the reps and retailers I had dealt with in the past. These wonderful people have been generous with their time and support. And many have made significant donations towards library stock. However, the most important aspect of this “buy up” was the realisation at Corrections that the purchasing process gave the department such good value for money, and, of course, for the taxpayer dollar. Not to mention the diversity of titles available direct from publishers, compared with the limitations of simply using retail outlets. Not the least advantage was that buying was based on a knowledge of the trade, much appreciated by Corrections staff who managed programmes but lacked an encompassing understanding of books and publishers. As well, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that prisoners who are occupied are easier to manage. A win-win situation all round.
Around this time I was invited to take a look at the Wellington Prison library. I have been going there every Friday morning for several years now. This keeps me in touch with my clients – and what a broad cross-section of society they are.
There’s a perception that many prisoners are illiterate, and, yes, some are, and that is a challenge. But one of my most challenging clients has a degree in English lit and a long sentence. Keeping up with his reading takes a bit of effort. For many prisoners this is the first time in years they have time to read, and the library needs to be up to date and diverse to meet all their needs – whether these are purely recreational or in support of study programmes.
About a year ago I was invited to undertake a follow-up survey of the libraries in all 22 New Zealand prisons. I am almost through this process, with a report due this month. It has been fascinating. Some prisons have wonderful, well-stocked, purpose-built libraries; others are less than adequate.
Some terrific initiatives are being undertaken by the dedicated people who work with prisoners, one being the “Story Book Dads” (and Mums!) activity. A prisoner reads a story and has it put on disc, then book and disc are sent home to their child, often accompanied by some art work. Several publishers have donated wonderful books for this purpose. The “Story Book” programme is another great reconnection with children, especially when a prisoner is a long way from home. It involves learning the often new skills of reading aloud, doing the art work and, in some cases, producing the disc. It’s my personal objective to find regular sponsors for the books and the equipment, and volunteers to work with the prisoners in various locations.
So, do libraries in prison matter?
Certainly. They matter not only because they are mandatory, but because access to books, whether for education or relaxation, and to occupy the long hours of lock down, are absolutely essential. For me, the worst sort of incarceration would be to be denied access to reading matter. And I am constantly amazed at the Friday morning conversations in the library at Wellington Prison. Recently we’ve had lively discussions on Genghis Khan (thanks to author Conn Iggulden), and many prisoners value the New Zealand section where they can learn more of their own history.
Some men are preparing a recipe book for use on their release, some collect gardening hints. And who would have thought that an old copy of New Zealand Gardener would inspire an artist who has not seen real flowers for some time? I like to think that access to books during time in prison will translate into a continuing connection to the written word and the magic of reading.
Why did I get involved? Because it is a privilege to have the opportunity to pass on my passion for books and the joy of reading. And it certainly is rewarding. The weekly library visit is much anticipated by prisoners. With luck there will be new books by favourite authors, and on a good day, some magazines and puzzle books.
Of course, every initiative has a cost, and priorities must be addressed. The public kindly sends donations to prisons, but, thank you, we don’t appreciate the left-overs from a book fair, or zillions of Readers Digest Condensed (I think these, in particular, go to dark corners and breed!). It is a logistical nightmare to receive cartons of books, then sort them and often dispose of what is surplus to requirements. We have a wish list which I am happy to share with intending donors.
I hope that, depending on the outcome of my survey, we can establish a system whereby donations can be centralised and shared equitably among various locations. That would ensure all prison libraries are well-stocked, up to date and relevant to the needs of a diverse clientele that is, in fact, a microcosm of the general public.
If you would like to donate books, email Patricia Morrison [firstname.lastname@example.org]. Most welcome are New Zealand fiction and non-fiction, poetry, atlases and dictionaries, science fiction and fantasy, copies of National Geographic, anything about cars and motorbikes, and anything in another language.