TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — The book collection at the Tompkins County Jail is, as one county librarian put it, not very expansive. It rolls around on a single cart, offering a small collection of titles for those in custody to choose from. A new partnership between the Tompkins County Public Library and the county jail aims to stock more books behind bars and to add titles that jail inmates and educators have requested.

The Literacy Inside and Out initiative will use an outreach grant provided by the Finger Lakes Library System to get new reading material to people in local custody and to add resources at the library for those who are reentering the community after serving their sentence.

“We want to make books and knowledge accessible to as many people as possible,” said Sophia McKissick, community engagement librarian at TCPL. “A lot of people don’t know what the library has to offer them, about all the resources we have.”

The mini-grant TCPL received is modest — about $1,500 — but is poised to have a significant impact on the jail’s book supply. Tompkins County Jail regulations make it difficult for friends and family, as well as non-profit organizations, to get books to inmates. Books must be paperback, brand new and shipped directly from a book distributor or publisher via USPS. These restrictions raise the cost and hassle of getting reading materials into the jail.

Capt. Ray Bunce, the Corrections Division supervisor, said the policy — which means friends, family and community organizations cannot mail or deliver books to inmates on their own, but rather have to order new, typically more expensive copies shipped directly from distributors — is necessary for security purposes.

“It’s a contraband issue,” Bunce said. “We have arrested people for smuggling suboxone strips in books, in pages deep in books,” he said, referring to a medication commonly used to manage withdrawal from opioids.

Bunce said the jail does not censor inmates’ reading choices by restricting the titles allowed into the facility. For practical purposes though, the costs and hassle of getting books behind bars limits county inmates’ options.

In light of these barriers, the mini-grant TCPL received is a unique chance to expand the jail’s offerings, and the librarians leading the initiative are working to take full advantage of the opportunity. Working with Susan Donatelli, who teaches in the Tompkins jail as the incarcerated youth instructor for TST BOCES, McKissick and Teresa Vadakin, head of information and learning services, are assembling a purchasing list that ranges from escapist fiction to skill-building guides.

“It’s things from James Patterson books to books on staying fit to books on the Dalai Lama — all sorts of different things,” McKissick said.

While the funds will go primarily toward book purchasing, the grant will also serve as a gateway to broader outreach to those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. McKissick and Vadakin are planning four information sessions at the jail over the next year, where library staff will not only lead literacy activities like “readers theater” but also introduce inmates to the library resources they can access after their release.

Those resources include the library’s routine services, like free computer and internet use, one-on-one help setting up an email account or printing court documents, and access to free local passes and the “Library of Things.” Going forward, resources will also include books, guides and programming specifically tailored to people who have been incarcerated.

McKissick said TCPL is working to expand its collection of titles related to reentry, including fiction related to the experience of incarceration, non-fiction related to the workings of the criminal justice system and educational books focused on building skills from digital literacy to anger management.

The library is partnering with local organizations to compile a webpage with local reentry resources and has paid for an initial printing of 100 copies of the Multicultural Resource Center’s grassroots guide to reentry. Staff plan to add reentry resources to the collection of pamphlets available to people signing up for a library card, and they’ve changed their card eligibility criteria in recent years to make it easier for people without standard photo IDs or with temporary addresses to join.

“We want to become a more friendly and welcoming place,” McKissick said. “If you don’t have a support system (during reentry) it can be very disheartening.”

In the coming weeks, library staff will work with corrections staff to coordinate the first information session at the jail. They’ll continue refining their offerings as they get feedback from people utilizing the new services, and hope to build bridges that last beyond the lifespan of the grant.

Featured image: A shelf at the Tompkins County Public Library. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.