Books keep inmates busy

MONROE — Spare time is not good in prison.

Inmates at the Monroe prison complex try to keep themselves busy to stay out of trouble. They work out, play cards and chat with each other.

And they read. Dozens of inmates each day visit the library inside the reformatory unit of the Monroe prison complex. The small library, monitored by surveillance cameras, keeps 18,096 books and dozens of newspapers and magazines.

Maurice Gosby, who has been locked up in Monroe since June, is a regular at the library.

“It helps me pass time, helps me exercise my mind,” said Gosby, 40. “It helps me have a different outlook on life.”

When he gets out in February, Gosby plans to make a living as a carpenter, a painter or a cook. For now, he reads magazines such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Entertainment Weekly. He thumbs through newspapers from cover to cover, reading everything except the entertainment section. He said he doesn’t want to find out about concerts he can’t go to.

The library keeps a variety of books to accommodate inmates’ needs. Shelves are full of novels, nonfiction books, religious books and science fiction. Some books are in Spanish.

Business books are available to help inmates prepare for their future. Among reference books are “The Ex-offender’s Job Hunting Guide” and “Job Interview Tips for People with Not-So-Hot Backgrounds.”

Virginia Persak, a library associate, runs the library alone and often sees the same faces coming in and out. Another worker runs the other library at the prison complex inside Twin Rivers Unit, which mainly houses sex offenders.

The National Enquirer is probably the most popular magazine among inmates, but some read National Geographic as well, Persak said.

Books treat inmates well and vice versa, said Persak, who has held the job for 23 years. She’s seen only two fights among inmates at the library.

“It keeps them calm and keeps them looking for something to do in the future,” she said.

Persak said she used to have additional hands to operate the library before the state cut down funding for prison libraries. Now, a few inmates assist her; they make 42 cents per hour. The state and the federal government allocate about $70,000 for the library annually, including Persak’s salary, said Laura Sherbo, branch library services program manager for the Office of the Secretary of State. Sherbo supervises 10 prison libraries statewide, including the two at the Monroe prison complex.

“There’s not a lot to do in prison,” Sherbo said. “It’s a constructive way to spend time in prison.”

Persak answers inmates’ questions behind the counter. She tries to help them find books. When the library doesn’t have certain books, she tries to get them from other libraries on an interlibrary loan.

Persak said she finds joy when her clients thank her. That was the same satisfaction she got when she worked at a community college library in Chicago before coming to Monroe.

A library is a library whether it’s inside or outside prison, Persak said.

“It’s no different to me,” she said.

Sam Elliott, a 28-year-old inmate, sees the prison library as a college. Elliott checks out books at the library to study for his life outside prison. He won’t have money to go to college to get a good-paying job, he said.

Elliott is scheduled for release in November. He aims to make a living as a paralegal.

“It’s vital,” he said. “Without this library, there’s no way where I’m at now.”

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or

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