Cumberland County Library 800 E. Commerce St., Bridgeton, NJ 08302
Submitted by Jean C. Edwards 856-453-2210 Ext. 110
Jail /Library Resource Sharing Program
Men and women are reading Cumberland County Library paperback books. These are books that could be read anywhere, but they are not being read just “anywhere.” The people are wearing bright orange jumpsuits with the letters “DOC” -- for the Cumberland County Department of Corrections.
Approximately 400 inmates of the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton have over 1,500 new library books to read thanks to a cooperative program between the Cumberland County Library and the Cumberland County Jail. Most inmates live at the jail for a number of years, so the jail becomes a place where inmates can improve reading skills, learn how to get a job, prepare for their GED or escape mentally into another world with recreational reading. Warden Robert Balicki developed this program with County Library Director Jean Edwards. A collection development meeting was held in May, 2012 at the County Library to decide on what topics would be purchased.
“I have been pleasantly surprised that some inmates have complained that they haven’t had enough access to the books. It’s not a complaint I ever remember hearing before and an indication that the word is getting around that there are good books available. I believe if inmates are reading, it is improving their lives and prospects for getting out and not coming back,” said Warden Balicki.
Prior to the initiation of this cooperative arrangement, the jail library was very small -- about the size of a large closet -- with the collection limited mostly to legal books and materials.
In order to visit the library, inmates leave cell pods locked with heavy steel doors. The legal materials help them with their court cases, but the county library books help them to gain valuable skills that will enable them to become more productive members of the community.
The inmates enjoy fiction by authors like John Grisham, as well as westerns and true stories. The county library selects the books, catalogs them and loans them to the jail on extended loan. The inmates with their corrections officers pick up the books at the library. When the books arrive at the jail, they are distributed to the various housing areas. Left for a time to give inmates time to read them, the books are then switched to another unit.
Children’s books are also sent to the jail for inmates to read to their children on visitation days. Inmates reading to children or grandchildren can create a stronger bond between them.
“I do discuss some of the books with a few inmates in passing. I try to encourage them to read Jimmy Santiago Baca and Pablo Neruda. Robert Bly is also one [author] I’ve been pushing,” said Warden Balicki.
The county library’s budget was cut in half in 2011 and then slightly increased in 2012. With such severe budget shortfalls, purchasing bestsellers and new books for the county library with such a minimal budget was virtually impossible. The funding from the jail provided books not only for the jail inmates, but also for regular patrons of the library who were looking for bestsellers and new books.
Warden Balicki credits the book program with keeping inmates focused on learning. Studies have shown a drop in recidivism when inmates participated in educational programs. Once inmates return to their community, the library will continue to be an educational center for them -- offering computers, Internet access, career information, personal finance materials and books on personal change.
“I think this is a good, innovative program. It provides the library with new books while helping to rehabilitate the inmates for when they get out of incarceration and transition into society,” said Tony Surace, freeholder liaison to the Cumberland County Library.
Books at the jail help provide an additional avenue to continue lifelong learning, despite an inmate’s confinement. Instead of focusing on the process of just “getting out,” inmates can think about what they can do to lead a better life once they are out.