San Quentin’s recreational library is filled with highly sought-after books thanks to outside support from the Friends of San Quentin Library, which has brought over 300 new books to the prison since May of 2022.
SQNews interviewed Kristi Kenney of the Friends of San Quentin Library via email.
SQN: Why is reading and having a prison library important to rehabilitation?
KK: Books are such a great source of insight and connection. They can open up whole new worlds for us and help us learn about topics we might never actually experience in our own lives, or aid us in unpacking, understanding, and recovering from things we have experienced. Books are part of independent study and are important for entertainment.
In terms of rehabilitation, reading can help incarcerated folks educate themselves, facilitate empathy and insight, and also be a constructive type of entertainment. I feel like even when I read just a super-fun graphic novel, I am expanding my mind, you know?
SQN: Why is it important to have an organization like Friends of San Quentin Library?
KK: Most public libraries have “Friends” groups that support them financially to some degree. They most often do this by having Friends of the Library bookstores that sell donated books from the community to raise funds. At the Berkeley Friends, where I also volunteer, we financially support most of the community programs that happen at the Berkeley Public Library. We thought this would be a good model, though of course we don’t have a bookstore … and we are doing more “basic” needs acquisitions like books and equipment needs.
SQN: Please describe how you get books and get them cleared for the prison.
KK: We’ve mostly been working with the closest bookstore to San Quentin, Copperfield’s Larkspur location, using their online wish-list option to keep a list of what books are needed and wanted at the library (beyond what [the prison] gets from their annual order through state funds). The “free staff” librarians update the online wish list, and we’ve been promoting the wish list through social media and our website. We just finished up a Banned Books Week promotion, where we even got to have an in-store display. We are [also] getting a matching grant for up to $1,000 based on the books we sold from a family foundation that supports prisoner advocacy issues. All wish-list items are reviewed for inclusion by prison staff and administrators. Afterwards, all approved items are delivered to the San Quentin receiving warehouse where they are inspected before being brought inside the prison and delivered to the library.
SQN: What does your staff take away from working inside with the incarcerated population? What have been the challenges and successes?
KK: We are a very new and small organization that just started up this May. So far, I have been meeting about once a month with San Quentin library staff. I enjoy hearing from the staff about how the library is run, what challenges they face, what
needs there are, and how we can collaborate to get some of those needs met. A few times we’ve had larger meetings where we talk about some of the challenges of day-to-day operations. I’m a later-in-life library student, so for me the information needs and access issues are interesting and are something that is key in the library field.
SQN: What are some of the successes?
KK: A few authors have been in touch and want to do book talks or writing workshops, too. This kind of community connection is ex
citing, and I hope we can figure out how to benefit the SQ Library and its patrons with these outside connections.
SQN: How has the COVID pandemic affected the program?
KK: We have not felt COVID issues as much as more established programs that suddenly had to stop their programs. The main issue for us is that some of the most involved inmate library staff have had to miss meetings because their housing unit is on Covid lockdown.
SQN: What should the incarcerated understand about your program?
KK: Everyone deserves access to good books, and we want to help prison libraries get all the resources they need to provide books to their patrons. This is especially important since incarcerated people don’t have access to the internet. Books are an extra-important gateway to information. Also, we want to hear from patrons and incarcerated staff their ideas and what their library and information needs are.
SQN: Any future plans or goals for the program?
KK: Yes, we’ve got lots of ideas, but things tend to move slowly! There is interest from staff in rearranging the patron space at the SQ Library to be more comfortable and user friendly. So, we are trying to help with funding and resources for that. We are also looking into procuring things like barcode scanners and other equipment. It’s not just about books!
I’d like to see us help with author visits and book club needs and maybe collaborate with local public libraries to answer reentry-related reference questions. Part of our long-term goal is to help other California state prisons, especially those in isolated areas, by using the name and locale of San Quentin to access resources. I’d really like to see that happen in the future.
SQN: Thank you for your time and service to the San Quentin community.