In my position as law librarian for the CRRL, I do not only serve the general public and attorneys, but I also receive letters from people incarcerated in jails and state prisons. Before I started, the previous law librarian would receive letters from all over the state. Now, with a smaller budget, I can only answer letters that are sent from facilities located within our service area.
By far the largest number of inmate letters come from the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford. Most inmates ask for cases, statues from the Virginia Code, or some other kind of regulations. Female inmates also request poems, song lyrics, puzzles, coloring pages, and inspirational material.
You might ask yourself: Do jails/prisons not have legal publications on-site? The answer is yes. Most state prisons even have librarians or at least qualified staff that can help inmates with their legal research. But, you might wonder, why don’t those inmates consult the library at their facility? Why send a letter to a public library?
As I have mentioned before, most letters I receive come from the RRJ. This facility is a regular regional jail, housing inmates that have been arrested on the street, await trial or transport to a state facility if they have been convicted. The RRJ offers legal material, but oftentimes inmates do not want to for for an appointment, don’t want to pay for copies they make or got their library privileges revoked because of bad behavior. And sometimes they Request Things that they know are Not permitted: Gang-related information and other banned materials.
What inmates who write me do not know is that I have a background in correctional librarianship and therefore know what jails/prisons do not like to see. The problem is, of course, that I am in no position to judge, or to refuse answering a letter just because I know that the information I send might be used for, let’s say, questionable activities. However, I frequently check policies on jail/prison web sites, and if I cannot get an answer in regards to their mail policies, call the jail directly and inquire about them without disclosing which inmate wanted what information.
Usually though letters are harmless and I have no problem answering them. This can not be said, howeveer, for letters that are sent by sex offenders. How do I know they are sex offenders? Well, because they disclose this information in their letters I order to receive the intformation they received. Or, when they simply state cases they want to work on their appeal, I can tell by looking at the cases. Every time I receive such a letter I am torn between my duty as a librarian, and my professional belief that every person is equal in regards to receiving information, and my personal belief that these crimes are so disgusting that people like this do not deserve my help.
So, I. The end, I answer each and every letter, but with a very bad feeling in my stomach.
What about you? What do you think about this situation? Have you been in similar situations, where personal and professional values clashed? I look forward to reading your comments!