Educational Series #6

Every federal prison has a library…or so I’m told. My experience here at FCI-Petersburg is much better than my experience in the North Carolina Prison System. There, we were lucky if we could find a library and it would be the size of a small closet if it was ever found. Getting it unlocked was a whole other matter. Not a good thing. In the federal prison system the outlook is much better.

According to the FCI-Petersburg Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook, “A general library includes a variety of magazines, newspapers, reference materials, and fictional and nonfiction books necessary for meeting inmates’ educational, cultural, and leisure needs.” It  goes on to note that, “An interlibrary loan program exist to enhance general library services.”

The FCI-Petersburg library is a part of the Education Department. As one enters the Education Department one takes a left and finds oneself in a small room which houses a copier, a postal scale, a number of TV/DVD units, and a clerk’s office where books and videos are checked out. Connected to this small room is the larger library room. This larger room comprises of a number of tables with plastic chairs, a number of typewriters, and a number of computers which are used for printing emails and official documents along with researching case law. More on all of this in a minute.

My personal experience with the FCI-Petersburg library has been a good one. I’ve found it to have a wealth of titles in a variety of genres. Unfortunately, my focus is usually on writing and education, and since neither appear to be hot genres to the prison demographic, I’m not assisted by it that much. But I am impressed with what it has. The other day, on a whim, I decided to ask for a title by Alexander Dumas. To tell you the truth, I wanted to prove that the library didn’t stock real literature. To my surprise the library stocked several titles by him. I stand corrected.
Besides books, the FCI-Petersburg library also receives a number of good magazines (e.g. Entrepreneur, Newsweek, and Time, etc.) and a number of good papers (e.g. USA Today, New York Times, etc.). It also manages a movie program where the inmate population can sign up for movie slots. During these time slots the individual prisoner can watch movies via stand-alone TV/DVD players and headphones. The movies offered are surprisingly varied. Everything from GED tapes to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are available.

The other part of the leisure library is the law library. According to the handbook, “Inmates are afforded the opportunity to prepare legal documents and reasonable access to legal materials via law libraries. Law libraries contain legal publications, general legal reference materials, and a selection of Bureau of Prisons’ policies so inmates can conduct legal research.”

The law library has recently been replaced with a series of computers. There must be around 30 of them and they are almost always in use. Regardless, the computers are considered a huge improvement over the old print-based law books which people would deface or rip pages out of. Even I – with my legal background – have found the new law library computers to be a Godsend.

Whenever I need to research Bureau of Prison’s policy, all I have to do is log in, select the BOP policy file, and type in a keyword. It really is that easy. The same is true of case law. All one has to do is open up the file for the district court or circuit court that the record is held in, type in the needed keywords, and the computer will perform a search.

The only other part of the library to note is the typewriters. Now, I’m 25-years-old. I’ve always used a computer with a word processing program. But upon arriving in state prison, I found that there were no computers or typewriters, just paper and pens. So, when I arrived here, the typewriters weren’t a bane, but a blessing. To me it was odd that I had to purchase a print wheel ($20), a correctional tape ($1.55), 100 sheets of paper ($1.95), and a ribbon ($7.75). Then I had to learn how to use them. Long story short, the typewriters are very innovative to someone who has been writing their letters via hand for two years, but a huge headache when you’re typing up a three or four hundred page book.

As you can see, there are opportunities. I think this is what we all should take from this. That while prison is a huge inconvenience – and worse at times – it can also be very conventional … except for the number of inconsiderate people.