Books on the Shelves


Some weeks I assist Alex Friedman with the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) library. There was no library until Alex, education director Jack Pischke, and other Chatham alums worked with jail administrators to make it happen. The library is a medium-sized store room at the back of an adult classroom in the education area. The door remains locked unless Alex or I grab Jack’s keys, an old-timey set on a big metal loop—the kind Andy Griffith carried.

As for the books on the actual shelves, they are all donations from libraries, Chatham alums, current Chatham students, and eager cults looking to drop off their book-length pamphlets. There, of course, are rules for what materials we can bring into the jail. No hardbacks. No books with excessive pencil notes in the margins. Nothing spiral-bound. But we’ve acquired a wild assortment: vampire romance novels, baroque romance novels, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, werewolf romance novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Most Mondays, Alex, two other library-science grad students, and I organize shelves. We’ve acquired enough books at this point to give books away to inmates on every floor of the jail. And that’s what we do each month. Alex and I pack clear Rubbermaid bins full of paperbacks, stack them on a hand truck, and deliver them to male and female pods on each floor. I wish people on the outside could see the glint in inmates’ eyes when we deliver books. It is a glint I have rarely seen even in grad students’ eyes. At some pods, the guys pace around the doors when they see us coming. “What y’all got in there?” “Got any James Patterson?” “Can I look through the bin first?” We dropped off books at one women’s pod. Alex and I were surprised they already had a bookshelf, a bookshelf filled with Bibles. The women asked, “Could you please take some Bibles down, so we can put other books on the shelves?”

According to, over 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level. Many inmates in jail and prison are at an educational disadvantage, but these women and men crave books. Many want to use their time locked up to improve themselves. They read biographies, graphic novels, literary fiction, “urban” fiction. They are voracious for knowledge because knowledge is power. That is not just a cliché. Inmates need words because words help them prepare for court. Words help them self-advocate as they grind through the gears of the justice system. Words help them write letters to a loved one. As grad students, we have so many books to read, we often take it for granted. We complain, “How am I going to get through this stack of books?” We don’t think of the woman or man in jail who just wants a good mystery to take their mind off a life sentence, and a book is nowhere in sight. It is a privilege to know how to read, to have ready access to books, to have the freedom to read whatever you choose.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher