While working as a librarian at one of the Ohio Department of Corrections' facilities, Andrew Hart received a fair amount of strange book requests. But one, from 2012, stands out in his mind.
"I was wondering if you could find a book for me," the inmate said.
“What is it?” Hart asked.
“I want a book on deboning chickens."
Hart paused. “Why would you need that?”
“I want to be a butcher when I get out.”
“I was not,” Hart tells Mental Floss, “going to get this guy a book on deboning chickens.”
There were other requests: books on getting out of restraints, survival guides, and other titles that would not be appropriate for a population of violent offenders. But for the two years Hart spent working as a prison librarian, the sometimes odd interactions were a small price to pay for helping to facilitate a sense of normalcy in an otherwise isolating and restrictive environment. With their carpeted floors, windows, and computers, prison libraries are one of the few sanctuaries available to inmates—a place that looks and feels like part of the outside world.
“I think it reminds them of a school library,” Hart says. “It brings them back to their childhood.”
The escapism afforded by the books can dilute the urge to pass time by engaging in criminal behavior. Libraries can even prepare prisoners for reentry into society after release, arming them with knowledge to pursue careers.
That ambition is what prompts graduates with degrees in library science to take detours—some temporary, others permanent—into managing books behind bars. Like public librarians, Hart organized book clubs, wrangled donations, and set up a shelf full of recommended reading. Unlike his public counterparts, Hart also had to take self-defense courses, check returned books for blood stains, and remain mindful of attempts to manipulate the privileges the library offered.
“You can be friendly,” he says of his interactions with inmates, “but you can’t be friends.”
Being allowed the pleasure of reading has been a privilege for prisoners for nearly as long as the idea of criminal detention itself. In the 1700s, religious tomes were handed out with hopes that wayward convicts would find spiritual guidance and correct their behaviors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, an increase in public libraries bled into penal institutions, and scholars advocated for “bibliotherapy,” or rehabilitation through literacy. Inmates devoured texts on psychology and law, increasing their self-awareness and sometimes antagonizing officials by challenging their sentences or their treatment within a facility.
Today, roughly 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in federal or state facilities that offer varying degrees of access to literature, from a few shelves full of worn titles to sprawling legal and recreational selections. When Hart decided to put his bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s in library science to use at the Ohio facility, he was dismayed to find that the unit had only 600 books in its inventory.
“It was dimly lit and barely had any computers,” he says. “My heart just sank.”
Hart set about improving the library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates could request books from public libraries—and “hustling” for book donations from local merchants and other sources. “When you think of a library, you think of books,” he says. “I wanted inmates to come in and see the shelves were full.”
In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.
Anna Nash, an institutional librarian who oversees multiple facilities for the Institutional Library Services arm of the Washington State Library, says that young adult titles are in demand. “So are paranormal romance titles,” she tells Mental Floss.
That prisoners seek out escapist fiction is not so surprising. But for the groups of prisoners who are admitted to the library on a rotating schedule, it’s as much the environment as the content that makes them feel as though they are somewhere else. “The library feels normal,” Nash says. “I had someone who worked in a public library come in as a volunteer one time and she was surprised at how clean everything and everyone looked. It’s a place where prison politics can be quasi-suspended.”
If a prison is home to inmates who segregate themselves by race or gang affiliation, the library is a place to congregate. Hart spearheaded book clubs and discussion groups; Nash recently finished a meet-up to discuss George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For one project, Hart solicited recipes from inmates and compiled them into a cookbook that he had custom-printed. For another, he collected art for publication and had the warden of the prison choose his favorite for the cover. He also became a notary so he could help inmates with their legal documents.
“I think it helped them see me in a different light,” Hart says.
How inmates see and perceive librarians is often the variable that separates public libraries from prison facilities. “They want to test you, to see how far they can go,” Nash says.
When Nash accepted her first job at a Washington prison library in 2008, friends and relatives were puzzled. “You’re in there with men?” some asked. “With murderers?”
She was. And as a staff member, she was expected to exert no less authority than any other employee of the prison. Upon hiring, she underwent a self-defense course in the event an inmate attacked her. She told inmates to tuck in their shirts so that they couldn’t obscure contraband. She admonished them to keep a physical distance from one another.
Nash also avoided answering any personal questions, no matter how innocuous they might seem, like "What’s your favorite book?" “They’re trying to test boundaries," says says. "We used the word ‘testing,' which is trying to get a staff member to do something they’re not allowed to do.” An inmate, for example, might want to tear the comics out of the newspaper. If Nash said no, the inmate would argue that another employee had let them do it before.
“They will try to play you,” Hart says, recalling the time a prisoner asked if he could tattoo a friend in the library, a fairly obvious infraction of the rules. “They want to seem chummy with you, like you’re two friends hanging out.” A prisoner might have a story for why they need to make more copies of legal papers than what’s allowed, or why they need to check out more books than the maximum allotted. To get an official to bend the rules is something of a victory for the prisoner, and one that could conceivably result in a breakdown of the supervisor's authority.
For Nash, being a woman assigned to a male population posed its own challenges. “When someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, beautiful,’ they know what they’re doing,” she says. “And if you smile back, they think it means something more.”
Hart has heard stories about employees developing inappropriate relationships with inmates. “It can creep in, where you begin bringing in stuff for them,” he says. “You want to be their friend, but you have to maintain that separation.”
It’s better to be the one doing the asking. When Nash tries to find out what a prisoner wants so she can make a recommendation, the answer can depend on whether they have a release date in sight. For some, a library isn’t just a release from prison; it’s a way to avoid prison after their release.
At the age of 20, Eddie Parnell flunked out of community college after less than one semester. Drugs held more sway than an education. “Once I tried meth, that was it for me,” he tells Mental Floss. The descent wasn’t immediate—he could hold down a job while fending off misdemeanor charges—but it was inevitable. At 30, Parnell began the first of what would become three prison stints for drug possession and burglary, the final one stretching for 31 months in Walla Walla, Washington.
At Walla Walla, passing time with a television was an expensive proposition. “A TV cost $275 and we made $30 a month working in the kitchen,” Parnell says. “So I would just dig my heels into a good story.” Parnell read Louis L’Amour westerns before growing tired of their repetitive narratives; he segued to Clive Cussler and Stephen King. Some of the paperbacks were so worn that inmates would tape labels from shampoo bottles to try and reinforce their torn covers.
For much of his sentence, Parnell read books simply to pass time. But Walla Walla’s educational library—a separate facility from the regular library—promised more. The department had just received a boost from philanthropist Doris Buffett (sister of Warren Buffet) that helped fund a program where inmates could earn an associate’s degree based on the belief that educational funding was sorely lacking when exploring solutions to the issue of recidivism.
Parnell decided he would pursue a degree in molecular bioscience and used all of the resources available to him—including the librarian—to make sure he was stepping into the right environment upon his release. “I couldn’t have done that without access to those resources,” he says.
According to the National Institute of Justice, two-thirds of released inmates are rearrested within three years, so mired in the cycle of criminal offenses that they see no other alternative. “They say reentry begins at sentencing, but the culture is still a ways off from that,” Nash says.
Even so, inmates often come in seeking information on how to build opportunities during and after their imprisonment. Some opt to try and learn a trade or how to start a small business. Others take advantage of the reference material in reentry programs to try and cultivate an exit strategy, whether it’s earning a GED or pursuing a degree. Upon his release in 2014, Parnell went the degree route.
“I graduate in May,” Parnell says. “Instead of being a detriment on society, I’ll be paying taxes. The library system contributed to this.”
For all of the benefits offered, prison libraries still come up against bureaucratic obstacles. The longest-running one is censorship, or the idea that certain titles aren’t suited for incarcerated populations.
But who decides, and why? Recently, New Jersey corrections officials were criticized for taking a book titled The New Jim Crow out of circulation. Published in 2010, the nonfiction work details accusations of racial discrimination in sentencing. Such action is in conflict with a librarian’s support of freedom of speech and publication and the American Library Association’s call to fight censorship as part of its ethical mandates.
“In Ohio, I called it the ‘banned book list,’ even though a lawyer vehemently told me not to do that,” Hart says. “Usually, it’s when a review team of a librarian, an administrator, a teacher, or someone else finds something objectionable.” The New Jim Crow is certainly a nebulous choice; other titles, like how-tos on weapons-making or combat, are natural omissions. “I couldn’t even get a tai chi book in,” Hart says.
Titles can be taken out of circulation for reasons other than content. A handful of times, Hart tossed a book he thought had blood stains on it. When he mentioned it to an inmate who worked in the library, the man said that wasn’t likely to happen too often.
“Why not?” Hart asked.
“We’re not going to return a book with blood on it,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”
After two years, a fatigued Hart went on to another state job outside of the prison system. “It was fulfilling but very stressful,” he says, citing long hours and the demands of a job with limited resources.
Like Nash, who still works with inmates in Washington, Hart still finds tremendous value in making sure offenders have access to the written word. For inmates who choose to take advantage, it can be a life-changing component of doing time.
“Libraries reduce mental, emotional, and physical conflicts in the prison system,” Parnell says. “If a person is reading a book, they’re not picking a fight in the next cell over. If not for the library, I would be getting ready to go back in.”
The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.
There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.
The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.
But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.
As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.
On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.
Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.
Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.
Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.
Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.
Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.
By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")
An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.
Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.