San Quentin’s main library is under-equipped, overcrowded and struggling to meet the legal and recreational reading needs of prisoners, Senior Librarian Tom Brobst reports.
With so little space for so many important purposes, Brobst feels he needs to be a curriculum acrobat at times in order to maintain fair library access for the General Population.
Brobst has been a librarian for approximately 18 years, with 13 of those years at San Quentin. He worked at R.J. Donovan, CSP-Solano, and as a parole agent for two years before coming to San Quentin.
Brobst is deft in legal issues important to the prisoner patrons, such as legal forms, case law, and reference books. But he cannot give legal advice because he is not an attorney.
Unlike prison libraries of years past, San Quentin now has seven computers available for legal research, meeting the requirements of Gilmore v. Lynch for prison law libraries with LEXIS and PREMIS legal databases. These resources are updated quarterly, although Brobst says updated information sometimes arrives to San Quentin’s library late.
Prisoners cram the library in hopes of getting a spot on a computer to work on their cases and other legal matters.
“There are not nearly enough computers available for everyone doing legal work,” prisoner Ted Swain said. Recently, “three computers were inoperable,” he said, making availability tougher. The computers have since been repaired, “but it’s a serious ongoing problem as this frequently occurs,” added Swain.
“The library has no budget and depends on the Office of Corrections Education headquarters in Sacramento for its funding,” Brobst added.
The official maximum capacity at San Quentin’s library is 38 prisoners at one time. There are currently 58 men on Priority Legal User status, who have precedence because of “confirmed pending legal issues” in the courts. This is a problem with a potential 2,000-plus user in the General Population. Often, there is barely standing room in the sitting/studying area of the library, according to Brobst.
Library worker Barry Ryeak, serving 15 years to life, told the San Quentin News: “The library could use many more books, but with space being a problem, we do what we can with what’s available.”
Brobst said he distributes donated books among several “locked-down units throughout the prison.”
The library serves the General Population, Reception Center, and Death Row.
Brobst points out those Death Row prisoners are under-served because of space limitations in the condemned library. It provides “complex, specialized legal services that require a senior librarian with the requisite training and experience to individually assist each prisoner,” explained Brobst. The Prison Law Office and the California Appellate Project monitor access to that library.
One San Quentin librarian, John Cornell, was laid off last year due to budget cuts, leaving two librarians on staff. They supervise 12 prisoner workers.
California’s prison system has come a long way since the days of Bibliotherapy, when librarians worked with prison psychologists to provide books for prisoners to study, then followed up with discussions about what was learned.
In 1952, one library journal illustrated how libraries “can surround the prisoner with a perpetual intellectual atmosphere of the type which is necessary to bring about a definite change in his behavior patterns.”