Librarians Will Save Us All
San José State University School of Information alumna Brandy Buenafe will be the first person to tell you how much she loves her work, how rewarding she finds it, and how she is, in fact, not only a librarian, but a public safety bastion.
Buenafe graduated with her MLIS in 2007 and immediately started working in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In fact, she was so highly qualified that the job was held for a semester until Buenafe could have her degree in hand.
In 2014 she was promoted to principal librarian. “Currently I’m responsible for planning the library programs for the entire state, which includes 35 prisons,” she says. In addition, Buenafe maintains the Electronic Law Library for inmates and is responsible for central purchasing, with each institution purchasing their own “recreational” books.
From Hunger Games to 50 Shades
“What surprised me once I got on the job was the YA [young adult] lit requests,” says Buenafe. “Inmates in California are mostly male, mostly young, in their 20s to 30s and emotionally still teenagers, communications and reading-wise, owing to when they were incarcerated in the first place. Their reading levels were sort of suspended. Divergent, The Hunger Games—those were very popular amongst inmates.”
The state has a small list of officially disapproved books, most containing pornography. 50 Shades of Grey was a controversial issue. Buenafe recalls having lots of discussions about the role of consent in the book. “You have to know when to purchase that book for the collection, or when it’s just not warranted. And when to advocate for library patrons,” says Buenafe. “We have a small budget. At a certain point, you have to think, Is this something I want to spend my limited resources on?”
At Pelican Bay prison, inmates are rehabilitated from the maximum security area to less stringent housing. The librarian there thought about what she could provide to the population, and started a book club. “These inmates are shackled, brought in by guards and put in a holding cell. Each person has their own cell, and there are 4 or 5 in the book club,” Buenafe explains. “They sit and talk about books with the librarian, in one of the most secure prisons in California. They’re on their third book now!”
“I don’t know anyone who went to school to be a prison librarian.”
“When people ask me, Why did you take a job in the prisons?” Buenafe explains, “I tell them that 95 percent of the prison population will be released and move in to your community, come and live next door to you. It’s better if they have learned some skills, if they know how to navigate living in the world once they’re out.” Pointing to studies showing that inmates with increased literacy during incarceration are less at risk of recidivism (returning to prison after they’re released), she adds, “My existence in the library helps public safety.”
“On the other hand, there is a tension between the professional ethics we learn and the reality of this environment, and it took me a few years to be comfortable, to know where to draw the lines,” says Buenafe. For example, there are physical restrictions on books (they can’t be hardback) and restrictions on the type of material prison libraries can provide: nothing that’s sexually explicit, nothing with violence, nothing that depicts sexual assault or rape. “The safety of the institution is always the most important priority, and trying to provide an open library with basic services—it gets tense.”
What it Takes
“It’s fascinating work,” Buenafe affirms. “This is a job for people who want something different, who have a sense of adventure, who want to (as cheesy as it sounds) make a difference. You have to be secure in yourself, be self-reliant.”
Every new hire gets a whistle, a personal alarm device, and Use of Force training, including instruction on how to de-escalate situations. But that’s just standard safety procedure, not a daily practice.
“I’ve worked for 8 years and pushed the alarm button once after a few inmates got into a fight,” says Buenafe. “It had nothing to do with me; I didn’t feel scared. But I needed guards to come and break it up, and they did, right away. In comparison, when I worked in the mall and there was an incident, in took 20 minutes for the police to arrive. Personally, I have never felt in danger working in a prison.”
Ten years ago, California added “Rehabilitation” to the title “Department of Corrections,” and Buenafe says that systems—and people’s attitudes—are just starting to catch up. “Prison librarians used to do work in the face of some hostility from corrections workers, who thought we were coddling the inmates [and] asked, Why do they need books?”
“Mostly these are just people who have a different set of ethics, or made a horrible decision when they were young. For most inmates, the library is a privilege for them: this is something they don’t want to lose.”