Duck through the metal detector, breeze past the booking area where sullen men in orange jumpsuits slouch on hard plastic chairs, cruise down a fluorescent hallway dotted with surveillance cameras and protected by breakout-proof doors, turn left into an open doorway, and here is Officer Selina Sanchez, holding a Dean Koontz paperback in both hands and cradling the phone to her ear.
You are standing in what looks like any American library. Magazines on one shelf. Thrillers and sci-fi on another. A couple of comfy chairs. A couple of pleasant white-haired volunteers. On one wall, a poster of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the cut-out words, “I Have A Dream.”
Except this library's clients — that's what Sanchez calls them, clients — are 1,200 shoplifters and con artists, drug peddlers and drug addicts and the occasional suspect accused of murder awaiting a jury of his peers.
Except this library's librarian is currently on the phone debating whether the prisoners in Cell Block 13 can receive their delivery of 1,000-piece puzzles today. Bad behavior means no jigsaws.
“Sorry about that!” Sanchez says cheerily after she hangs up the phone. “You want to see the books?”
She walks into the back room of the Douglas County Correctional Center library, and leads you down row after row of books, organized and labeled by genre, alphabetized and filed with military precision. There is a row for mystery, and a row for black authors. A row for Spanish-language books, a row for religion and a row for 4th-grade-level readers.
Officer Sanchez has marked those books with a special stamp. The stamp lets her keep them organized without tipping off the other inmates when a prisoner is reading a book meant for a grade schooler.
Soon, she plans to get a couple of picture books, for the prisoners who cannot read at all.
There are 15,000 books here, and yesterday 350 were checked out. Officer Sanchez records every inmate's handwritten request for a book — in prison lingo, “a kite” — into her computer. One inmate asks for “something action.” Another wants a thriller. A third scrawls, “Thank you” in huge letters below the request.
She double-checks to make sure the inmates in solitary confinement get only three books at a time. She makes sure no inmate who has ripped apart a book lately will get another until he or she pays for it. Officer Sanchez is a prisoner's best friend until they rip apart a book.
Also, don't even think about asking for “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “No way,” Sanchez says. “No soft-core porn.”
She sets aside the requests, the kites, that specifically ask, “Officer Sanchez, can you pick me out a book?” Later she will go back into the stacks herself and pull out something the prisoner will like. She knows the “good readers,” as she calls them, by name. She knows their favorites.
Sometimes, for the “good readers” she tries to sneak in a book about American history, or a how-to-book, like the one called, “How to Ace a Job Interview.”
“So they can better themselves, for when they get out,” she says.
“If we don't try to teach them another way to think, we accomplish nothing,” says Barb Glaser, the jail's programs administrator and Sanchez's boss. “Just locking people up accomplishes nothing.”
You should have seen this place seven years ago, when Sanchez, a longtime prison guard, hurt her foot and got reassigned to the library while she recovered. The walls were bare. The books were thrown here and there. The magazines were ancient.
At first Sanchez couldn't wait for her foot to heal so she could get back to guarding the inmates, which she had been doing at a New Mexico maximum-security prison and then for Douglas County Corrections since 1996.
But then the old librarian left. Glaser asked Sanchez to take over. So take over she did.
She stenciled letters on the walls, and with Glaser's help got a couple of comfy chairs for the prison guards who wanted to stop by on their breaks.
The Sanchez family has lived here for nearly a century, so Officer Sanchez put her deep Omaha roots to good use. Two nieces worked at two doctor's offices. Another niece ran a salon. Hey, instead of throwing away those used copies of Sports Illustrated and National Geographic, can you save them for me?
On the weekends, she hit the garage sales of South Omaha, in search of jigsaw puzzles that inmates can use if they behave. When Sanchez's eldest son calls from Afghanistan, where the ex-Marine is working for a defense contractor, Sanchez updates him on the library.
It's time for rounds now, so you trail Sanchez and two young men she calls “trustees.” The trustees are inmates in white jumpsuits who make $3 a day working in the library. The trustees push a cart filled with bags. The bags are filled with books.
Sanchez reaches Housing Unit No. 1, pulls a bag off the cart, and heads inside the locked door. The men in orange jumpsuits look up. She sets the book bag near the entrance — she used to hand them out, one-by-one, but so many books are checked out now that there is no time for that anymore.
An inmate walks up to grab his book. “Thank you,” he says. “You are welcome,” Officer Sanchez says.
She repeats the process at unit after unit, most of them filled with 64 men or 64 women who usually get to talk to their children only by videophone and who usually get one hour of recreation time a day. Books or puzzles are the highlight.
“I think Selina might be the most popular person in the jail,” Glaser says.
Between stops, Officer Sanchez quizzes one of her trustees, a young man we'll call Alvarez who has razor-sharp cheekbones and a thousand-yard stare. “So are you still reading 'Modoc'?” she asks Alvarez.
His face softens. “I already finished it!” he says.
“Modoc” is the true story of an elephant who became famous in New York during World War II. It does not seem like the type of book that would be a hit on Cell Block 13.
“So, did you like it?” Officer Sanchez asks.
“Yeah, I did,” the inmate says. “Pretty nice, actually.”
“I told you!” Officer Sanchez says. The jail librarian breezes down the fluorescent hallway protected by breakout-proof doors. She breezes past the surveillance cameras that dot the walls, and for a second, those cameras catch her smiling.
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