Down the cement block halls from the inmates' cells is an escape route.
|An inmate looks over books at the Wood County Justice Center's library. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Lining the walls of the Wood County Justice Center library are shelves of books that can transport the prisoners to worlds outside their cells. There are adventure novels, romances, self-help books, classics and remedial reading materials.
The jail library is sponsored by Wood County District Public Library, and assisted by Weston Public Library.
It is staffed by volunteers who have retired from other professions and believe in the power of reading, even for inmates who have wronged society.
Some of the volunteers have been working shifts in the library for two decades. They include Dolores Black, Bonnie Schurk, Alta Codding, Chuck McCaghy and Donna Mertz.
Though working in the jail library was a little unnerving at first for some volunteers, that fear quickly dissipated for Black. "This is my Detroit," Black said of her hometown. "We get to know them. It's fascinating. You meet people, they come back and you get to know them."
The volunteers realize they offer some inmates a glimpse of a world never before experienced by them.
"Some say, 'You know I've been to high school, and I've never read a book,'" Black said.
Clad in orange jumpsuits, and under the watchful eye of a deputy, the inmates file into the jail library. One checks out a thick books of poems. Another gets an action novel, and another borrows a book on how to get a commercial driver’s license.
Once a week, prisoners at the Wood County Justice Center get 20 minutes in the jail library, looking up everything from comic books to law books.
|Comic books and magazines are on display for inmates to check out at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
|An inmates waits while library volunteer Bonnie Schurk files his book away at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
|A selection of books sit on shelves at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
|An old newspaper clipping hangs on the wall at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
|An inmate sits in a holding area after checking out a book and magazines waiting to return to his cell at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
|Reading glasses for inmates are seen sitting on a desk at the Wood County Justice Center's library.
“I just think this is a jewel in a cage,” said Dolores Black, who has been volunteering at the library for 20 years.
Approximately 60 inmates visit the library a week, as long as they don’t lose their privileges by violating jail rules.
For many of the prisoners, the books provide an escape of sorts.
“I’m in a bubble,” said James Cook, of Northwood, who is being housed in the special management section of the jail.
Last week, Cook, who is serving six months for impersonating a police officer over the phone, checked out a large print dictionary and a self-help book on getting a commercial driver’s license.
“I’m trying to rehabilitate myself,” he said. “I’m trying to work on my intelligence.”
Cook also borrowed a World Atlas.
“That way I can see the world, sitting inside my cell.”
The most popular books at the jail library are novels by James Patterson, Dean Koontz, westerns and classics such as Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. The female inmates tend to like Nicholas Sparks’ romances, Janet Evanovich’s crime novels, Jane Austen classics, and the “Women in Prison” series.
Self-help books, on topics such as yoga, are also in demand.
Nathan Brenner, Bowling Green, said he normally borrows magazines, science fiction and men’s health materials.
“It’s nice to have the books to get into and escape reality,” said Brenner, who has been in jail since May awaiting trial for murder.
Last week, Brenner picked out a thick book on “Great Poems.”
James Ramey, Toledo, said he is also focused on self-improvement while serving six months for violating probation of a temporary protection order. He checked out men’s fitness magazines and said he planned to work on his “six-pack abs.”
Many of the books at the jail library have been donated by Black, who tries to furnish the shelves with books the inmates want. When one requested more Star Wars books, she got the entire series. When she realized the popularity of the Patterson novels, she responded. “I think we have everyone.” There are cooks books and sign language manuals. She tries to cater to specialized interests, if possible.
“One liked Zen, so I had to buy Zen books,” Black said.
For those who speak Spanish, she has purchased Latino items,
and for those who have difficulty reading, she had brought in first grade books.
“They will not admit they can’t read.”
Last week, when Black came
in for her library shift, she brought a couple pair of reading glasses for inmates struggling to see the print.
Black does, however, have limits. No matter how many requests, she will not buy the erotic novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“I looked at that and thought, ‘No,’” she said.
Over the years, some books have posed certain problems, such as the Harley-Davidson book that inmates tore photos out of. That book is no longer available.
“It only takes one person to change the rules,” Black said.
She also has been known to scold inmates for not using bookmarks, and dog-earing pages instead.
But Black is committed to the program, stocking the library with puzzles, pictures for inmates to color for their children, and board games such as Sorry, Clue, Parcheesi and Monopoly. The last Monopoly game Black purchased, however, had metal game pieces — not allowed in jail. “I gave it to my kids,” she said.
Black also supplies the library with puzzles and pieces of cardboard for inmates to take to their cells. Completed puzzles are then glued on a background, framed and hung in the library by Black.
“It gives them a sense of pride,” said Lt. Ruth Babel-Smith.
Minimum standards for jails in Ohio require the inmates to have certain “entertainment,” like the library, Babel-Smith said. “We take pride in the library because very few jails in Ohio have a set up like this.”
While some jails have a single shelf of books in the cell area, the Wood County jail has a bonafide library. “We have several avid readers. That’s one privilege they don’t like to lose,” Babel-Smith said.
Inmate workers catalog the books and help make repairs to ripped pages.
Last week, volunteer Bonnie Schurk also helped in the library, She recalled being nervous when she first staffed the library 20 years ago. But that was many books ago.
“I think a lot of them become readers,” Schurk said.
Besides completed puzzles on the wall, some inmates leave other reminders behind at the library. One penned the poem, “An Ode to the Librarian.” Black was unsure of his crime. “He went to prison. But he was a very polite guy.”