My temp assignment as the inmate law librarian of a county jail promised to be an encounter with the unknown. Up until that point I’d worked in many different kinds of libraries, but this was the first job in a jail. This jail, 14 stories tall and able to hold about 1300 people, was in the process of closing. Most likely this was due to a combination of bail reform, demographics and the condos going up on the next block. The prisoners were being moved to other jails around the state.
For most of the first three weeks or so I, like the other people employed there, did very little work. During this time, I tried to figure out where the resources of the library were and which publishers and vendors I would need to speak with. The library was housed in a social workers’ consultation area converted for that purpose after it became possible for prisoners to perform legal research on laptop computers. During the entire time I was there, no prisoners entered “the library.” I received some reference requests, specific to the cases confronting a few of the prisoners. In one instance, the request was for reading materials pertaining to recovery from drug addiction. I took these requests, and in fact the whole job, much more seriously than the other employees, at least as far as I could tell. On more than one occasion, one or more of the screens in the secure control room were being utilized for watching some Miss Marple knock-off murder mystery or playing videogames.
If the C.O.s were tasked with keeping people from escaping, I’d estimate more than 90% of that task is accomplished by the design of the building. This jail, and probably most others constructed contemporary with it or later, was impossible to exit from unassisted, even for employees. I had a set of keys and a radio. Had I lost them I could only hope that other staff would come looking for me. If hypothetically the C.O.s all decided to up and leave, the prisoners would succumb to hunger and thirst before they ever got out of the building. It was more work to let someone out than it was to keep them in, and these guys did not like doing any work that might benefit those living under lock and key. The career choices predicated upon their moral universe drew these “heroes” into a physical universe where their sloth and petty bureaucratic self-righteousness found socially acceptable expression. More inmates mean more job security; fewer releases and fewer inmate services mean more time to pursue the side hustle or just sit around.
One of the perks of a C.O.’s job is carrying a handgun. However, the job did not require a firearm and nobody was allowed to bring the guns into the facility. Rather, there were two walls of small lockers, just the size to accommodate a firearm and holster. Part of my “orientation” was being shown these lockers by an officer who resentfully described their purpose to me. As a librarian I was not issued a handgun. I also was not shown where the incoming library mail could be picked up, nor outgoing library mail dropped off, which I actually needed to know. Rather, I got a lesson in the hardships suffered by taxpayer funded off-duty tough guys.
It was at least three, possibly four, weeks into the assignment before I was given an I.D., a radio and a (non-gun) lock and locker. The locker was to hold my cell phone, which was not allowed into the jail while I was there, and a 2-way radio, best not taken out of the jail while I wasn’t there. I was warned to keep an eye on the radio I was issued because “these things walk.” I doubt the prisoners would want to risk stealing an expensive and closely monitored walkie-talkie, difficult to hide with limited range, when they might instead smuggle in a cell phone. If someone lost their radio they were expected to pay for a new one. My opinion is that if anyone was stealing these radios, it was the guards. Their only re-sale value was to other people who work in the jail, like the new guy who got his ripped off or carelessly lost it. If that came to pass, there was probably someone who could hook one up with a replacement at a discount.
Around the time I was given equipment, I also found out where to pick up the incoming mail for the library. This consisted mostly of requests from prisoners, of which there were few. In the room outside my office was a filing cabinet containing several laptop computers and discovery files belonging to many former inhabitants of the jail. These files were legally the property of the prisoners’ respective attorneys. I was tasked with returning them to the attorneys. A few of these folks showed up right away to pick up their files pertaining to multiple clients. The public defender’s office was nearby and I walked those files over. Other lawyers fell short of impressing me. Was it as clear who cared and who didn’t as the responses to my repeated attempts to return these files made it seem? By my last day I’d returned all the files I was likely ever to clear out. I had another temp assignment lined up and was already pushing my luck by making that employer wait for my final two weeks after giving notice at the jail. Anything I could not get out of that drawer might sit for years before finally being thrown into the county incinerator.
One attorney sent an ordinary letter envelope, addressed to their office. This was the envelope into which I was supposed to put eight thumb drives. The mailroom could not be relied upon, so I Googled the local post office and walked it over after my shift. Since the envelope was only intended for little more than a folded piece of paper, I reinforced it with a criss-cross lattice of scotch tape. I figured that if it was handled as a parcel, it would make the trip intact. The postal clerk refused to accept it. I should have known better. I think this demonstrated that envelopes of this size are by default sorted into automated letter handling machinery. Anybody familiar with the realities of postal delivery would know that it would never have made it through the sorting machine without either jamming the contraption or breaking open and scattering unmarked thumb drives with confidential data all across the floor. My only choice then was to send it via priority mail. At least the post office was willing to supply me with a better envelope at no charge. The postage, however, came out of my pocket.
When I started counting this jail held about 60 people. That number went down to 3 as of my second to last day. On my final day, I checked the population sheet and there were supposedly 270 people. This was clearly a lie. In fact I recognized one of the names on the sheet from the old discovery files in the file cabinet for which I was responsible. My suspicion is that the number went down to zero and the staff pumped the list full of old names to justify their hours and thus their paychecks. Those names were real people who never consented to being used in such a way.
During my final weeks it seemed some of the C.O.s were confident the jail would re-open in about two years. The building couldn’t be repurposed for anything besides denying people freedom of movement. Like many such facilities around the country this building may end up renting space to other jurisdictions, detaining prisoners far from their communities and loved ones. Despite its 14 floors being stacked precariously between active commuter transportation and functioning public buildings the safest and most reasonable alteration to the building would be accomplished with a wrecking ball.