I deliver books to Santa Cruz jails; don’t tell me libraries don’t matter

Jesse Silva of Santa Cruz Public Libraries
Jesse Silva of Santa Cruz Public Libraries.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Librarian Jesse Silva regularly delivers books and library programs to the more than 300 people currently incarcerated in Santa Cruz County. She also brings in kindness and social support. For some, she says, the library is the only outside contact her patrons experience during their months or years in jail. She argues that her work is vital and that we must support our libraries and recognize the essential role reading plays in rehabilitation.

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My father spent four years in prison before I was born.

We rarely discussed his time inside — from age 17 into his early 20s — but the trauma and abuse he clearly experienced marked my childhood, transformed him and determined my career path.

Today, I am librarian with the Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ County Corrections Facilities (CCF) program, which means I provide library services inside Santa Cruz County’s jails and juvenile hall.

I see the impact this work — the delivery of books and human kindness — has on people at their most vulnerable and needy. We must continue to support and expand it.

Every other week, I go with a colleague to the Rountree Facility in Watsonville and to juvenile hall in Felton, where we offer a small collection of library books for people to browse and check out. We provide each with a Santa Cruz Public Libraries (SCPL) account, and encourage them to come to a library when they reenter our community. Our patrons at the Santa Cruz Main Jail do not currently receive these services, but they can request books via a tablet system, and we deliver those to the sheriff’s team and they distribute them inside.

We also offer the literacy program, People & Stories, a short-story workshop that brings relevant works to marginalized populations and ignites discussion through narrative.

I am drawn to this work, I think, partly because of my father’s experience. But it’s also because growing up poor in Santa Cruz, I used the public library as a sanctuary. The library made my education dynamic in a way the public school in my low-income neighborhood could not.

Too often today, people underestimate the value of libraries and what they do for those who are underprivileged. I know some might think libraries are archaic or that librarians can easily be replaced by Google.

That’s preposterous.

Public libraries are as necessary today as they were in the 19th century. They support those who have little or no community and provide access to information to those who can’t otherwise get it. They create positive social change. They are places of shelter, refuge, learning, escape and compassion.

Bringing in a bit of compassion

Here in Santa Cruz, in April (the most recent month for which statistics were available), we had 348 people in our adult jails and, on average, 16-20 in our juvenile hall. Those inside our jails are disproportionately poor, experiencing mental health issues, homelessness and/or have substance use disorders.

They are disproportionately people of color. We know statistically that people of color are arrested more frequently and punished more harshly than their white peers, and are far more likely to be incarcerated for crimes of necessity or “survival crimes.”

... thank you for the service you are providing in here. It really helps my mental health and depression when I have books to read.

— Feedback from an incarcerated person on the Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ County Corrections Facilities program

I know who these people are because I serve them.

When I visit people who are incarcerated, I bring books and I advocate for literacy. But I try to also bring in a bit of compassion and social support.

People who are incarcerated are isolated. They have no autonomy, little to no contact with people on the outside, and their access to resources and information is restricted. Books offer a window to the outside and a means to briefly escape the confines of the facility.

A few years ago, while I checked out a book to an incarcerated patron, the person shared that they had no money to buy perks, like shoes, coffee or spices sold at the “store” inside. They had no family or friends visiting or waiting for them to get out. My visit was the only connection they had with the outside world.

For me and the library, it is a relatively simple thing to roll our crates of books inside. But for this patron, it was life-changing.

Our community needs to recognize how much quiet, sustained impact libraries have.

Why incarceration is detrimental to all and how books help

Carceral institutions are by their very nature inhumane. I believe no sentient being is meant to be imprisoned. I regularly witness the stress and trauma of incarceration. I felt its effects on my father — on my family — my whole life. Whatever happened to him while he was in prison haunted him the rest of his life. It led to substance use, PTSD, profound anticonformity and constant dysfunction in our family.

Jesse Silva of Santa Cruz Public Libraries
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But such trauma can be offset a bit by a brief interaction with non-corrections service providers, and even more so when there is an exchange of books.

I know the work I do has an impact because I regularly get feedback.

Here are some recent examples I’ve received from those I serve:

Thank you, to all Santa Cruz Public Library staff for making library services accessible to all in SC County Correctional Facilities. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this great program for the better part of 18 months. It definitely made my time in jail easier to cope with.

If there is a silver lining to incarceration, it has been to read and greatly enjoy “The Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. Thank you, as always, for providing his novel and all the other books. This inmate really appreciates this service.

... thank you for the service you are providing in here. It really helps my mental health and depression when I have books to read.

This story made me feel appreciation for strong, meaningful words. I really loved the way she made a living for herself. I can only think how much self worth or self esteem her honest words gave her.

I firmly believe public libraries must support those who have little or no support, to provide access to information to those who might not otherwise have it, and to create positive social change in the communities they serve.
A connection with books, a love of reading and of the library has impacts well beyond incarceration. People develop lifelong bonds with the library, which can help with rehabilitation, reintegration and connection with family and friends and community.

How what is ‘inside’ comes ‘outside’

Often, incarcerated people leave jail with no money and no support system, leading to increased recidivism. The public library, with its community partners and open access to free resources, can be a lifeline for people recently released.

Public library services work when they are relevant to those most in need — what lifts up one of us, lifts us all.

Jesse Silva of Santa Cruz Public Libraries
Some of the books that will be delivered to those incarcerated.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When we began to build a CCF book collection, we based it on the reading interests of people inside the jails. But then we discovered something wonderful. Many non-CCF patrons on the outside wanted to read the very same books.

That prompted SCPL selectors to order those books for the general collection, too.

The reading interests of those inside informed the outside collection, creating a more well-rounded, meaningful, and relevant collection for all.

Inside, access to library services can also ease the stress of incarceration for jail staff. Over the years, officers have told us that library days are their favorite days of the week. They report that the entire facility is more peaceful after we leave and everyone is immersed in their new library book.

In addition to book lending, we must continue to provide and expand programming and services. Currently, we offer a short-story workshop which brings relevant stories to marginalized populations, igniting discussion. Participants earn “milestone” certificates, which provide sentence time reductions for participating in education, vocation, cognitive-behavioral and life skills curriculum. These certificates can reduce terms of confinement and demonstrate how libraries support positive social change.

The CCF team is exploring how we can provide additional programs, including early literacy programs for parents and caregivers who are incarcerated and short story workshops for juvenile hall.

Jesse Silva of Santa Cruz Public Libraries
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Why should libraries serve people in jails?

When people ask why public libraries should use precious resources to serve people who are incarcerated — i.e., why should they get publicly funded services — I remind them that public libraries are meant to serve everyone, regardless of their involvement with the justice system.

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Many who are in the county jails and juvenile hall are awaiting court dates and may or may not be convicted (innocent until proven guilty).

If that doesn’t sway, I remind them that most people inside our county jails eventually return to the community upon release.

Wouldn’t you rather that person had spent their time reading, instead of not?

I can’t ever change what happened to my father. I can’t help others convicted of crimes they did — or didn’t — commit. But our libraries remain vital in our fight for democracy, equality and in our search to define ourselves as a compassionate community.

Jesse Silva has worked for Santa Cruz Public Libraries for 10 years, and has been providing library services inside for eight years. She spent the first six months of her life living in a goat shed with her mother and older sister in Pescadero, and then moved to Beach Flats, where she grew up. In her 46 years, she has lived in just about every part of Santa Cruz County.

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