Every day, the San Quentin State prison library is bustling with activity. Inmates might be ordering books from the clerks at the counter. Other inmates might be sitting at tables, reading books and talking among themselves.
The windows in the librarians’ offices provide a glimpse of San Francisco Bay as well as the mountains.
In the legal section, inmates pore over law books, which they can order from a slot through a window. They can also sit at a computer to research legal statutes or write briefs at one of the tables.
The library might look like many others outside of the walls, but it serves a particularly important function at San Quentin, where it is considered a space to help educate and rehabilitate prisoners.
The prison is well known for its programs such as Prison University Project (PUP) and Restorative Justice, but they are often full and have long waiting lists.
In such cases, the library allows the men to study independently. “The library begins where the classroom ends,” said Senior Librarian Douglas Jeffrey, who is a member of the prison staff.
The idea of using the library as an educational and rehabilitative tool began nearly three decades ago with San Quentin librarian, Herman Spector, who used reading and writing to reform inmates through a program called “Bibliotherapy.”
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
“Books for Spector were the deathless weapons of progress by which prisoners could be paroled into the custody of their better selves,” wrote Eric Cummings, author of The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement.
One of the most popular sections has always been the law library. Glen Mason, the lead law clerk, said patrons become so knowledgeable that some are able to get their cases overturned through their research findings.
“There have been many inmates that have used the law library to research issues regarding their cases,” said George “Mesro” Coles-El, a recreational clerk, who has worked at the library for five years.
One of those users is Ronald Chatters, who frequented the law library for two and a half years and is working on a brief to argue for a parole hearing under Proposition 57, which can give him an early parole consideration.
“The two years that I have been researching law has made me literate enough to help others with their cases,” Chatters said.
Coles-El, who works as the lead circulation clerk, said even recreational books can be a valuable educational tool.
“Reading affects your thinking,” he said. “When you read, your thinking changes, which affects your behavior.”
Coles-El himself has been changed by reading. “Before I spent time in the library, all I did was walk around and think negative thoughts, thinking about how I could get over on people,” he said. “But then I read a book entitled ‘Loving What Is’ by Byron Katie. Reading her book helped me to discover that most of the stress in our lives comes from being jealous of what others have.
“Her book influenced me to better thinking, which changed my behavior,” Coles-El added.
Joseph Krauter, lead administrative library clerk, was also changed by a book. “Four years ago, I was an emotional wreck and going down in flames,” he said, adding that he was on the verge of giving up on himself, his program and getting out of prison.
That’s when his grandmother sent him a book called “Neuro-Tribe,” by Steve Silverman, about the history of autism.
“The book showed me through pain and suffering that I can succeed and make something good of my life,” Krauter said. “It helped me to focus and to immerse myself in programs that helped me better myself. Because of this book, I found hope.”
Krauter described the library as a place where inmates can change their perspectives and thinking, and find books full of wisdom to help them do so.
Another librarian and prison staff, Gabriel Loiederman, said the library provides a space for forming positive relationships, which is an important component of rehabilitation
“Whether it’s two legal researchers discussing the merits of a case, or two students helping each other with algebra, the library is there to provide a free environment that can foster these kinds of constructive interactions that contribute to rehabilitation,” he said.