A “Novel” Approach to Literacy– Public Defender’s Office to Work More Closely with Library JARS Program

Newly-appointed
Public Defender Manohar Raju is committed to continue to improve the
circumstances for our clients, not only post-jail, but also during their time
in custody.

That’s
why we are excited to announce a new partnership with the San Francisco Public
Library’s Jail and Reentry Services program (JARS). This program circulates
books to people who are incarcerated in San Francisco’s three county jails.
Librarians visit each section of the jails regularly with an ever-changing
collection of about 250 books. They estimate that after being checked out,
books change hands up to 20 times before being checked back in to the
librarians, who fulfill book requests from their patrons as often as possible.

Our
office will be strengthening its ties to this program and expediting the
ability of our staff to get books into the hands of their clients. We will
be communicating directly with SFPL whenever our clients request certain books
and we will also be recommending books that our clients might want to read.

“One
of the most positive things about this program is that it allows us to interact
with our clients intellectually, not just about their cases,” said Raju.

The
importance of having quality reading material in jail cannot be underestimated.
Just ask Steph Liebb, a former “lifer” who now works in our office as a
paralegal. He describes what it was like to be in jail with few resources.

 “You
are pretty much confined to a cell 24-7,” he said. “So reading is really the
only outlet available to take your mind off the stress of fighting your case.
In the situation I was in, there wasn’t access to TV or radio or even
newspapers on a regular basis. Having a book is something precious in that
environment.”

Steph,
who spent time in the LA County Jail and then San Quentin, particularly
remembers being impacted by Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel, The
New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander, and Memoirs from the Women’s Prison
by Nawal El Saadawi.

Librarians
from the JARS program order multiple copies of books, which Liebb says is
particularly advantageous. “This way you can get many people involved reading
and discussing the book at the same time,” he said. “Everyone can be reading
and talking about it.”

“We
hear regularly that access to new, relevant books is having a profound impact
on the patrons inside,” said Rachel Kinnon, manager of the JARS program. “We
hope that their positive experience with the library inside will lead them to
become life-long library users on the outside, as well.”

In
addition to books, the librarians also answer reference questions by mail from
inmates.

“We
are so grateful for the JARS program and are excited to be working more closely
with the library,” said Raju. “Books unlock invisible doors. They educate,
entertain, elicit emotions, and are a vital lifeline for those who are in
custody.”

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