WCU staff and students improve libraries in area jails

fr librarieswFor most people, the word “jail” stirs up mental images of vertical bars and stark concrete walls, not of rows of books or orange-clad inmates studiously reading them. But bars have, for the most part, turned to Plexiglas and metal doors, and thanks to the collaborative research of librarians and criminal justice faculty at Western Carolina University, an initiative to expand book collections in Western North Carolina jails is gathering steam. 


“With inmates having to serve sometimes up to two years in these county jails, they have time on their hands to engage and improve their lives, if given the chance,” said Jill Ellern, the WCU librarian leading the charge.

But it’s not always that easy. Jails often lack the space and money to curate an extensive book collection, and because safety regulations preclude inmates from having hardback books, the titles most in demand are often hard to come by. 

The jail libraries are predominately filled with Westerns, romance novels and crime fiction, but inmates are most interested in non-fiction. In one jail library in the region, the most checked-out book is a biology textbook. Self-help for relationships or overcoming addiction, science, law, encyclopedias, philosophy — those titles are scant, partly because they’re hard to find in paperback. Especially when the effort relies heavily on donations. 

“We’ve had a lot of community interest in this,” Ellern said. “They can get books, but they’re still not getting the books I’m talking about.”

So, Ellern and company are doing something about it. The initiative developed after she spoke with head librarians as part of a research project centered on library services in WNC jails, which she undertook with Karen Mason, associate professor of criminal justice. The stories of friends who worked as jailers had left them pondering what life would be like if they were incarcerated. As avid readers, they were particularly interested in the prospect of having more time to read.

But the team quickly learned that the typical jail library left much to be desired, and they began working with jail administrators in Jackson, Macon, Haywood, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. Over several months, they learned about library services and policies, examined the book collections and looked for ways to help the detention centers provide quality library services. 

The latest chapter was a tour of Haywood County Detention Center last week. The group included Haywood County librarians and law enforcement personnel, Cyndy Hughes of the WCU criminal justice program, and Stephanie McGee, one of the students involved in the community service class working on the project. The mission was two-fold: to see the jail first-hand and to deliver a set of North Carolina State Statues donated from Jackson County library, trading the old 1999 books for a 2012 set.

Haywood’s library is a good bit bigger than others Ellern has seen, the long back wall of the room also used for gatherings such as church services lined with six-foot-tall bookcases. But still, the titles predominately denote tales of Western adventure or passionate romance, a startling number of their spines sporting pink or purple paper. And they’re not just for the female inmates, which are usually a minority compared to the males. 

“I would say more of the guys read the romance,” said Terri Price, detention officer at Haywood County Detention Center.  

Students involved in WCU’s Ripple Effect program are helping Ellern’s effort to update the collection. One facet of the service-oriented program, which includes five different community service options, is focused on developing a list of titles wanted in the libraries, soliciting funds to buy them and working with publishers to secure donations or reduced rates. 

“We are looking for ways to regularly provide these items to the jails,” said Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Library. “Donations will be greatly appreciated to help us provide this valuable service to the community.”

Because a jail library isn’t a standard collection. The shelves have to be continually refreshed with new books, because when the books are used up, they’re used up, ready to be thrown out. Maintaining the libraries wouldn’t be a one-shot deal — it would be an ongoing effort. 

Having those titles on hand gives inmates a chance to do something productive with their time, whether it’s studying for the GED, reading self-help books on anger management, relationships or addiction, researching the law or reading the local paper. 

“They’re away from the community, and they want to known what’s happening,” Ellern said of the many requests she’s received for newspaper subscription donations. 

Unlike at a prison, not every inmate of a county jail is guilty. As much as two years can sometimes elapse between arrest and trial, so some people spending time at jail will be pronounced innocent once their day in court arrives. So for administrators, it’s a fine line between maintaining order and providing opportunities for self-improvement. 

Heidi Warren, Haywood County Sheriff’s Deputy, didn’t hesitate to say that inmates would read the books if they were donated, and Price said that even Haywood’s limited selection gets a great deal of play. 

“Some of the girls, they’ll read togther if one of them’s not that good a reader,” Price said. “I don’t think the guys really do that.” They tend to keep their reading to themselves, but they definitely do read, she said. 

Unless, of course, their release date is drawing near. There’s some superstition surrounding the wisdom of that sort of enterprise. 

“If you don’t finish it before you leave, you end up coming back to finish it,” Price explained. 

Library services are important in giving inmates something productive to do, area jail administrators said, and they noted that happier inmates contribute to a safer environment. Some also described access to reading materials as a right rather than a privilege, noting that the role of jails, unlike prisons, is custody and care, rather than punishment, according to a paper Ellern and Mason published about their research. 

However, they also described the enormous challenges jails face in providing even rudimentary library services, said Ellern. The facilities lack not only funding to purchase materials but also space for books. Several jail libraries consisted of a single movable book cart, and in one case the collection was in a locker. In addition, the facilities have limited staff available to maintain the collections and coordinate library services. 

So, collaboration will be key to improving library facilities in detention centers region-wide. Ripple Effect students are busy looking for donors and book sponsors, and in Haywood County, librarians are throwing around the idea of setting up an account to lend books out jail inmates, who number around 125 on the average night. 

“They’re part of our community,” said Sharon Woodrow, Haywood County Library Director. 

And the goal, of course, is to make them even more productively so upon release. By spending those locked-up hours in a positive manner, the chance of success following their release improves. And that helps everyone, said Macon County Jail Administrator Lt. Steve Stewart.

“This has been a tremendous help to us,” he said, “and especially to the inmates.”



Want to help?

The jail library project is looking for donations of books and of funds to improve libraries in jails across Western North Carolina. In particular, they’re looking for nonfiction books such as GED study guides, textbooks, self-help books, how-to books, law texts and philosophical works. All contributions must be paperback, as inmates are not allowed hardback books. 

To learn more or arrange a donation, contact Liz Gregg of Jackson County Public Library at 828.586.2016 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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