July 29, 2016
NYPL opens first library in Rikers Island women’s jail
by Kait Howard
Situated on 400 acres in the middle of the East River, the Rikers Island complex includes ten separate jails, holding just under 10,000 prisoners at any given time. Facilities include a bakery, central laundry, tailor shop, print shop, and maintenance and transportation facilities, but there hasn’t—until now—been a library.
As amNewYork’s Alison Fox reports, the New York Public Library has just opened its “(unofficial) 93rd branch” in Rikers’s Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail. With 1,200 books, computers, and education programs apparently in the works, the space will be open every Tuesday for about six hours. Inmates will be allowed to check out two books for a two-week period. According to Fox, the collection is comprised of mostly donated books, ranging from the Hunger Games series and an “extensive James Patterson collection” to Les Misérables and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Notorious for its dark history of violence and brutal abuse of inmates, Rikers only houses individuals who are awaiting trial or serving sentences under a year, and this might partly justify its meager investment in education services. But its track record of utterly disregarding the wellbeing of inmates, many of whom are being held for minor offenses, is an equally plausible explanation (for an overview of some of the worst abuses, as well as other details and stats, see this 2015 report published by New York).
Since 1984, the NYPL has distributed a smaller number of books via carts, and this will continue in the men’s jails. Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert, who made a trip to Rikers this week to hand out signed copies of her books, told Fox that “what [inmates] deserve is a peaceful, safe space in which to let their minds expand.” With such limited hours, it’s hard to imagine the new library offering such respite to the approximately 800 women at Rikers. But it’s a start.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.