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Vintage postcard showing prison tower and concertina wire
Illustration by Katrina Rodriguez; text effects by Teresa Tauchi

I couldn’t believe the noise the first time I walked into the library at the United States Penitentiary at Lomboc, in California. The low-ceilinged lobby amplified the sound of 18 clacking typewriters. It was here that the legal eagles — a common nickname for unofficial incarcerated lawyers — would scope out their competition.

These jailhouse lawyers kept the law section of the library lively, bickering over both customers and legal points.

Four swinging doors led from the typing pool into the cavernous main library, where the ceilings jumped from 10 feet to 20 feet, and the walls were bare. Just a trace of the clacking leaked into the quiet here. Incarcerated clerks made sure patrons at the study desks stayed silent.

Whether an incarcerated person needed legal aid, quiet or the thrill of a best-selling novel, the library was the place to seek it. While working as a library clerk, I enjoyed first reads of new books and found sanctuary and fellowship with like-minded bibliophiles. I made a solid $6-a-month paycheck. But the chance to temporarily escape my prison existence, if only in my mind, was priceless.

Once I found a parking ticket from Columbus, Ohio, with the name and address of the offender included. It was tucked into a bestseller by John Grisham. Hoping to establish a penpal, I wrote to her. I provided what history I knew of the book where I found her receipt, and noted the rubber stamp from its time in a Colorado bookstore. Maybe she could provide her part of this well-traveled book’s timeline?

Not surprisingly, I never heard back. But the quest briefly took me out of the isolation and depression of prison life.

Compared to the federal prison library, the California state prison libraries I have visited felt like cozy used bookstores. These smaller libraries saw more imagination from staff who decorated the walls with posters and bulletin boards full of announcements, and sometimes even plants. Because of their smaller budgets, these libraries could only buy some new books each year. Missing books interrupted serialized novels, and misfiled volumes frustrated visitors. Donated books and barters with local bookstores sometimes filled the gaps, giving hints about their previous lives.

At the two locations where I worked, I would rifle through dog-eared novels, pages brittle and yellowed with age and coffee stains.

Some books were decades old, and some told stories with their scents.

More than once I smelled wood smoke. Was it pine, sage, maybe cedar? When the smell wafted from several sections of a 1967 volume I picked from the stacks, I could picture a lone backpacker sitting next to a smoky campfire. Maybe that afternoon he had relaxed with the book by a babbling stream, lounging in the midday sun after a strenuous leg of the trail. In my mind he was somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail in the high Sierra Nevada, savoring the volume I held in my hands. For a brief moment, I was there too. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.