If ever you find yourself bemoaning "so much to read, so little time," imagine having so much time and so little to read. In other words, imagine yourself in lock-up at the Shelby County Female Correctional Facility.
Besides a handful of books brought in by prison volunteers and 15 paperback copies of The Shack (a modern-day Christian dream vision in which a man finds God in a shack in the woods), the reading options at the women's jail are essentially nonexistent. To get much of anything else, female inmates must take a bus to the nearby men's prison and borrow from its only slightly better selection.
"It's called a correctional facility. If you aren't allowed to educate, then what are you correcting?" said Stephen Garrett, who is leading the charge to build up a library at the women's prison. "You're not rehabilitating anyone if you don't let them see what else is out there that's better."
Garrett got the idea to start the library from Elaine Blanchard, a local storyteller who volunteers at the prison, teaching the craft of writing and gathering stories from the female inmates. Blanchard spends months with each class and arranges their work into a show called Prison Stories, which is then performed by local actors, once at the prison and once more to the general public. After seeing a Prison Stories performance, Garrett asked Blanchard how he might help the female inmates. Her reply was unequivocal: Help them start a library.
"Most of the women I've met didn't graduate from high school, and with every class something happens where I think I would so love to give you more.But in the last class, one night I was talking about the Holocaust, and no one in the circle knew what that was," Blanchard said. "They really need education in any shape, form, or fashion we can offer it."
The Diary of Anne Frank will be a staple of the library, according to Blanchard, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and other classics. Beyond that, Garrett says they welcome books of all genres and at all reading levels and have begun a book drive to stock the library, which Garrett hopes to have in place by August. He has also secured a dedicated space in the prison, formerly a storage closet, where the library will be housed. In fact, Garrett said the response has been so overwhelming and the donations so generous, the storage room might not be big enough for all the books.
The library is just a piece of Blanchard's larger vision for what she calls a "jail creative college," where inmates would be given the kind of education and creative space many of them have never had. She's been working toward this goal over the last four years with her Prison Stories program, but Garrett's success with the library so far ushers in a new era of hope for the long-term goal.
"He's the third person I've told the women need a library,'" Blanchard said. "The other two people have tried to get in touch with people at the jail and have not gotten a response or an open door."
So how was Garrett able to break through? Some personnel changes at the jail, including one particularly helpful new hire who wishes to remain anonymous, and persistence on Garrett's part, Blanchard said.
"One person can be the thickest, most immovable door," she said. "But one person can also be the biggest force for good."
Interested in donating books? Bring paperbacks only to Theatre Memphis this Saturday, June 15th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
or to the parking lot of Playhouse on the Square on June 29th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. After receiving thousands of books at the first book drive on June 15th, the second book drive on June 29th has been postponed to make time for processing the large volume of donations.