Larry Blair is finally reading books.
The 61-year-old dropped out of middle school after an armed robbery arrest and never considered himself much of a traditional academic.
He has called a jail cell home for a combined 40 years, drifting in and out for a jumble of theft, drug and assault convictions. Each time he’s released, he reverts to stealing and lands back behind bars.
Blair will complete his sentence this month, and he says it’ll be different this time. He promises to keep reading.
The D.C. Public Library system opened its first location in the city’s only jail in March 2015, introducing inmates to books and library programming that also will be available to them after release. In its first year, 1,100 inmates checked out 4,600 books.
“When I got on the streets, I never had time to read,” said Blair, dressed in an orange jumpsuit in the basement library. “Now, I promised, I will always have a book.”
In 2013, advocates began asking for a library in D.C.’s jail, citing anecdotes and programs showing how reading can rehabilitate and empower the incarcerated. The library is one of a handful of programs, including GED classes and occupational training, intended to make inmates more literate and employable. An employed former convict is less likely to return to a cell block, according to data from the Urban Institute.
Some D.C. inmates have been exposed to books and libraries in federal prisons. The District’s program, in part, also seeks to help transition inmates from using the jail’s library to the libraries in their neighborhoods upon release.
When Blair gets out, he’ll leave with a library card.
“It’s amazing how small things make a huge difference,” said Regina Gilmore, the reentry coordinator for the D.C. Department of Corrections. “Of course, the library reduces idleness, but it also starts dialogue. They talk about the books with each other, they relate to it. It helps with their communication skills.”
The library system foots the program’s $293,288 annual bill. A full-time librarian, Danielle Zoller, is in charge of the nearly 4,000 books in the jail’s basement. Zoller pushes a cart of books through the jail’s corridors each day, allowing inmates to take their pick.
Sometimes, they’ll request a book they’ve heard about from a fellow inmate. Other times, Zoller will bring books from the basement that she thinks inmates will enjoy based on past preferences.
She recently led a book club discussion of “D.C. Noir” — a George Pelecanos-edited anthology of stories set in the District that The Washington Post described in 2006 as offering “a startling glimpse into the cityscape’s darkest corners.”
The most popular book among inmates at the moment? “Sharp Objects,” a 2006 thriller by Gillian Flynn about a reporter covering the murder of two girls in her home town.
“A lot of books just become popular by word of mouth here,” Zoller said. “Many of the guys tell me that the first time they’ve read is when they get locked up.”
While most inmates prefer fiction, Blair sticks to real-life stories. He likes redemption tales — about someone who beat the odds and has a triumphant story to tell.
He recently finished “I Am Malala” — the memoir of Malala Yousafzai, the teen girl who advocated for education in Pakistan and was shot in the head by the Taliban on her school bus.
Blair grew up in a poor family with little parental support along H Street NE. He participated in the 1968 riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He never forged a career outside of jail. He said he plans to write a memoir, telling the story of how he learned to forgive those he never thought he would.
“[Malala] said she had no animosity to the person who shot her in the head,” Blair said. “It took me a while to forgive and not worry about what people say.”
D.C. inmates have long been able to obtain legal publications, but before the jail got its library, prisoners had access only to a hodgepodge of donated leisure books that Blair said often were torn and raggedy. Now, the books are the same as those in any District library, although the jail library is prohibited from housing books that glorify violence, Zoller said.
The library system plans to implement a program that teaches parents the importance of reading, which would include a story time with inmates and their visiting children.
Last year, inmates were invited to participate in the library’s citywide summer reading program, where adults tally how many books they read.
The D.C. resident who read the most books? An inmate who clocked in at 101 books in a year.