Library, Sheriff Unlock Literary Choices at Jail

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America Velasco (right) of the Sheriff’s Office and Elmer Jan of the Marin County Free Library have teamed up to expand library selections for jail inmates.

Ideas and collaboration lead to expansion and new catalog

Inmates at the Marin County Jail have had access to a mod­est selection of books for many years. What was missing was a catalog or database to show the incarcerated patrons what else was available if it wasn’t on the shelves.

A collaboration between em­ployees of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and the Marin County Free Library (MCFL) recently solved the situation, and it’s a page-turner of a story to tell.

America Velasco, a program coordinator for the Sheriff’s Custody Division team who was hired in November 2018, was eager to improve the selec­tion of materials and create a catalog for the inmates. There were about 2,000 books and a selection of educational DVDs within the jail. With a few ideas in mind, she first talked with Custody Division Reentry Sgt. Michael Dobbins. With his en­couragement, Velasco walked up to the information desk at the Civic Center library branch one day in January 2019.

“There are inmates in our custody who escape their re­ality by reading books, and I wanted to provide them with books from various genres to choose from,” Velasco said. “It’s important for me to know what type of books we have and how many available cop­ies we have to better assist the inmates, so a catalog was needed.”

Elmer Jan, one of the branch’s librarians, remem­bers the first exchange with Velasco. They both realized it was going to be a tedious and extensive project to catalog each item.

“I expressed an interest in working with America to ex­plore what projects we could address together and so began researching how other pub­lic libraries provide service to county jails,” he said.

“I was surprised by their ex­citement, but I was excited to have Elmer and the rest of his peers on board,” Velasco said.

Jan’s research connected him to the San Francisco Public Library Jail and Reen­try Services division staffed by library program manager Rachel Kinnon and librarian Jeanie Austin, who generously shared their resources and ex­periences.

In May, Jan started visiting the jail on Monday mornings to spend two hours organiz­ing the library materials into genres. He is creating a survey to find out what type of books the inmates would like to read, and Velasco is proactively “weeding” books in poor shape from the jail archive and has initiated a subscription to the Libib cataloging website. MCFL has begun donating new books in direct response to spe­cific inmate requests.

What’s popular? Books on World War II, astronomy, other nonfiction, historical fiction and works by author James Pat­terson.

“With the library taking pa­tron requests and our response to those requests with Sara Jones’ support, I feel extremely gratified that we have begun providing library service to an underserved population,” said Jan, who is in his 19th year working for MCFL.

At the jail, Velasco nor­mally oversees educational programs, religious services, community resources presen­tations, training programs and the volunteer program. She evaluates program effective­ness and creates and main­tains the program scheduling in all the housing units. With that much interaction with in­mates, she already knows the library upgrades are being re­ceived well.

“Once we explain to the in­mates that we are creating a library catalog and expanding the selection, they are excited about having access to more books than the ones in their housing unit,” she said.

MCFL Director Sara Jones said the departmental collabo­ration with the Sheriff’s Office represents the County’s com­mitment to equity measures. “It demonstrates how we can tailor services to create access to information and pro­vide reading materials to those who have limited options,” she said. “It’s rewarding whenever we use the skills of library staff to meet our mission for inclu­sion for all people in Marin.”

To learn more about sup­porting the jail library, call (415) 473-3203. The nonprofit Friends of the Marin County Free Library supports many other MCFL programs.

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