Passages for Prisoners ; Librarians, Volunteers Offer Books to Help Inmates Pass Time

By Erbacher, Megan | Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current), November 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Passages for Prisoners ; Librarians, Volunteers Offer Books to Help Inmates Pass Time


Erbacher, Megan, Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)


Some people are simply misunderstood by the outside world, according to Nathan Barenfanger, a 25-year-old inmate at the Vanderburgh County Jail. "Some people are here just because they couldn't get the demons off their back that they needed to get away from," Barenfanger said.

Although Barenfanger has a job while he's lodged at the jail, which includes maintaining halls and passing necessary items to inmates, he said there isn't much else to do to pass time - except when Gail Lee visits with her rolling library.

For nearly four years, Lee, a full-time medical librarian, has provided a library service to inmates at the Vanderburgh and Posey county jails. Twice a month, she wheels her four carts of books into the commons area of the cells, and inmates are granted five minutes to find up to two books. Lee said a positive of the limited shopping time means they may choose books they wouldn't normally read.

"It's an escape for the time being," Barenfanger said. "When you get in a book, it takes you away for a little while. For someone that's doing time, they can get into a story, and it takes you to a whole other world. You can forget about being in here."

In the beginning, Lee did it alone. But she quickly realized, seeing between 250-300 inmates every two weeks, she needed help. So Eva Sanford, a friend and the adult services librarian at Willard Library, stepped in to run the service in Community Corrections and organize book sorting and mending. Lee also typically has an inmate helper.

Most of the inmates are in jail for drugs or alcohol, Lee said.

"The reality is 95 percent of these inmates will be returning back into the community," she said. "So how do we want them?"

Lee started the service after her fellowship with Indiana's Librarians Leading in Diversity from the Indiana State Library Association allowed her to attend Indiana University. Through work there, she learned about a jail library service and saw a need in Evansville and surrounding communities.

"It gives them (inmates) the opportunity, it gives them the choice and they feel normal," Lee said. "Many of them have said this is the only thing that has kept them sane in an environment where they are locked in a cell; this is a chance for them to escape out of that."

Popular books and authors include The Left Behind series, James Patterson, John Grisham and the most requested book is the dictionary, which helps inmates write letters and expand their vocabulary. Book topics range from GED to self-help to fantasy.

Barenfanger said he is a Harry Potter fan, or anything fantasy, but he's currently reading A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown. Without the library, he admitted there would be a lot more problems in the jail. The books provide stress relief, he said.

"Many people, if they didn't have these books, there's no telling what they'd be doing," Barenfanger said. "If you look in a locked cell, you will see four out of five people with a book in their hand."

Major Craig Titzer, Vanderburgh County Jail commander, believes the library helps because it gives the inmates something to do. …

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