Valerie Schultz works as a library technical assistant for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., I’m surprised at you. Didn’t your mother raise you better than to insult whole groups of people?
For those who are wondering, I’m talking about a remark the chief justice made last month during oral arguments in Bruce v. Samuels, a dispute about federal prisoners paying legal fees. Here I quote from Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog: When reminded that prisons maintain libraries, “Roberts then shot back, presumably sarcastically, ‘I’m sure they are very good libraries, too.’ ”
I run a library at a state prison for men in California, and I can attest that it is indeed a “very good library.” My library is tasked with assuring that inmates have access to the courts because, although they are convicted criminals, they retain certain civil and human rights. We provide them with access to legal forms, typewriters, law books and computers that can be used to research case law and the myriad rules of the courts, as well as a daily legal newspaper. We make available typing paper, numbered pleading paper and envelopes for filing court documents. We make the required number of copies of outgoing legal work. We weigh documents to determine the number of stamps needed for mailing. In short, we have everything that an inmate acting as his own lawyer needs to bring his concern to the attention of the appropriate court.
I say “we” because I supervise three inmate library assistants, who, five days a week, work harder than a lot of people on the outside but whose wages top out at 24 cents an hour. These library assistants have acquired many habits and skills they can apply in any job they get after they leave prison, such as punctuality, responsibility, self-discipline, proper grooming, teamwork, clerical skills and, perhaps most important, “people” skills. We often serve more than 300 patrons a day, and library assistants quickly learn how to deal with unhappy or unruly customers. Together, we run a tight ship.
In addition to the law component, my library contains more than 10,000 volumes for recreational and self-help reading. We spend our yearly acquisitions budget on many of the books on the library’s “wish list,” and we accept donations from inmates and outsiders. The prison’s inmate welfare fund pays for subscriptions to more than 30 magazines, and we have a collection of encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference books. We offer a peer-tutoring program, a book report program, parole preparation resources and a quarterly newsletter written and compiled by the members of a writers group that meets weekly. Chief Justice Roberts, does this begin to sound like a “very good library”?
The prison library is a place of reading, writing, learning and support. It is an oasis of normalcy in an often intense, custodial desert. It is clean, quiet and welcoming. We don’t have the latest technology, but we make every effort to be a valuable mine of information. If we don’t know something, if we don’t have a needed resource, we will find it.
I sometimes encounter men who never visited a library before going to prison, who never checked out a book and had to be responsible for returning it, who perhaps never before had a chance to learn to read. I meet budding poets and memoirists. I see men trying to atone for their mistakes, using the tools of education and rehabilitation. I work hard and I am rewarded daily when I see the good that can be done in a “very good library.”
So Chief Justice Roberts, consider this an open invitation, from one government worker to another, to come and see for yourself.