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Tales of A Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book At A Time

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In a large suburban county jail, a rolling library book cart connects boys with their new counselor, a veteran schoolteacher. Faced with their unquenchable thirst for reading to help ease the unremitting boredom of everyday life, "Mrs. Z", now, "the book-lady," gives them the opportunity to share their hopes, their disappointments, their disillusionment and most of all, th In a large suburban county jail, a rolling library book cart connects boys with their new counselor, a veteran schoolteacher. Faced with their unquenchable thirst for reading to help ease the unremitting boredom of everyday life, "Mrs. Z", now, "the book-lady," gives them the opportunity to share their hopes, their disappointments, their disillusionment and most of all, their anger at a system that is crushing their spirit and dreams for the future. What Frederick Douglass advised us about education rings true today--"It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men." Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian skillfully captures the sights, sensations and rhythms of jail life. Zeman mixes journalism, memoir and character sketches with facts about the juvenile justice system, describes the various agencies, provides relevant statistics, and specific court cases that become so palatable they are easily digested. Never a "slog". Interesting and engaging. She makes a strong argument that these boys need education, not jail time. "We have to recognize that we have a very narrow window of opportunity left to re-direct incarcerated youth toward education and living productive lives. Jail isn't always the best solution. One million dollars invested in incarceration reduces 350 crimes; one million dollars invested in education reduces 600 crimes. It's difficult to slap the word, criminal, onto a juvenile-someone who is 16 or 17 or 18, someone who has the rest of their lives ahead of them and is just as likely as you or I were at that age to change." Not a screed or an expose. These are real stories about real kids in prison, stories so real and so raw they become our own.


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In a large suburban county jail, a rolling library book cart connects boys with their new counselor, a veteran schoolteacher. Faced with their unquenchable thirst for reading to help ease the unremitting boredom of everyday life, "Mrs. Z", now, "the book-lady," gives them the opportunity to share their hopes, their disappointments, their disillusionment and most of all, th In a large suburban county jail, a rolling library book cart connects boys with their new counselor, a veteran schoolteacher. Faced with their unquenchable thirst for reading to help ease the unremitting boredom of everyday life, "Mrs. Z", now, "the book-lady," gives them the opportunity to share their hopes, their disappointments, their disillusionment and most of all, their anger at a system that is crushing their spirit and dreams for the future. What Frederick Douglass advised us about education rings true today--"It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men." Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian skillfully captures the sights, sensations and rhythms of jail life. Zeman mixes journalism, memoir and character sketches with facts about the juvenile justice system, describes the various agencies, provides relevant statistics, and specific court cases that become so palatable they are easily digested. Never a "slog". Interesting and engaging. She makes a strong argument that these boys need education, not jail time. "We have to recognize that we have a very narrow window of opportunity left to re-direct incarcerated youth toward education and living productive lives. Jail isn't always the best solution. One million dollars invested in incarceration reduces 350 crimes; one million dollars invested in education reduces 600 crimes. It's difficult to slap the word, criminal, onto a juvenile-someone who is 16 or 17 or 18, someone who has the rest of their lives ahead of them and is just as likely as you or I were at that age to change." Not a screed or an expose. These are real stories about real kids in prison, stories so real and so raw they become our own.

30 review for Tales of A Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book At A Time

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    TALES OF A JAILHOUSE LIBRARIAN BY MARYBETH ZEMAN Prepare to be angry, sad, frustrated, pleased, helpless and yes, even feel joy at times. This is a remarkable book by a dedicated, generous-natured teacher of nearly thirty years who voluntarily worked in a jailhouse for young offenders of sixteen, seventeen and eighteen as a transitional counsellor/librarian. Reading the prologue sets the scene, immediately drawing you in to the atmosphere. The author who is known by the boys as Mrs Z has private TALES OF A JAILHOUSE LIBRARIAN BY MARYBETH ZEMAN Prepare to be angry, sad, frustrated, pleased, helpless and yes, even feel joy at times. This is a remarkable book by a dedicated, generous-natured teacher of nearly thirty years who voluntarily worked in a jailhouse for young offenders of sixteen, seventeen and eighteen as a transitional counsellor/librarian. Reading the prologue sets the scene, immediately drawing you in to the atmosphere. The author who is known by the boys as Mrs Z has private troubles to deal with as well as the troubles of the offenders. This book opens your eyes to how the prison system works. Some of these young lads really have no chance. How can they change when even if they are determined to do so, there are so many obstacles in the way. In the main, officers in the prison service do their best to help but they are too often handicapped by rules. Marybeth Zeman has gathered together a series of stories of some of her time working in a young offenders jail, where she tries to help them cope with acclimatising to conditions and to overcome their fears for the future. We get to hear about Diquan - the heartbreak and sadness when he couldn’t get to say goodbye to his dead brother because of a technicality. There is Hector - who was relieved to just get a life sentence (with no parole) instead of a lethal injection. I could go on with names, there are many. In fact there are many tales in this book that will shock and/or surprise you. Marybeth Zeman with her trolley full of books and her big heart and listening ears reaches out to help so many of the troubled youngsters. Ignorance and poverty pose steep hills to climb. It takes a wonderful lady to take on such challenges. This is a thought provoking book which also includes some interesting facts. It will open many peoples eyes and maybe give new understanding to a very real problem. Very definitely deserves five stars

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christoph Fischer

    “Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian” by Marybeth Zeman is an exemplary collection of personal experiences by a goodhearted woman in a large suburban county jail. Troubled by her own share of personal dramas ‘Mrs Z’ takes the role of jail librarian and counsellor. Her open heart, her ability to listen and her compassion make her a wonderful narrator for this heart-breaking and heart-warming book. The inmates that the author writes about are young offenders with varying backgrounds and with different ou “Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian” by Marybeth Zeman is an exemplary collection of personal experiences by a goodhearted woman in a large suburban county jail. Troubled by her own share of personal dramas ‘Mrs Z’ takes the role of jail librarian and counsellor. Her open heart, her ability to listen and her compassion make her a wonderful narrator for this heart-breaking and heart-warming book. The inmates that the author writes about are young offenders with varying backgrounds and with different outlooks for their future. Reading and studying helps, at least those who get to stay long enough to pass their exams. Zeman sees and shows us a lot about our prejudices and misperceptions about the inmates and with a great knowledge and understanding of statistics, the ‘system’ and legislation she portrays many ‘cases’ or personal stories, as they are likely to unfold. Not all of them will have happy endings, sadly. The writing is excellent and gripping for a book that is partly memoir and partly documentary. The author spends just enough time with each inmate to make us understand their predicaments and actual needs for a better life and for making better future choices. An insightful, informative and important work.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Theresa Connors

    This book is an insightful collection of 2-3 page vignettes describing juvenile offenders. The author is a counselor and librarian at a juvenile detention facility. She sheds light on the reasons the boys ended up in detention, the deficiencies in the juvenile justice system, and the transformative power of the right book in the right hands.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    Connecting with incarcerated teen boys through books. A lack of narrative finesse is compensated with Zeman's inspiringly earnest compassion and enthusiasm.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Fran

    TALES OF A JAILHOUSE LIBRARIAN: MARYBETH ZEMAN You committed a crime. You are just a young teen. Your life is about to change and there is nothing you can do about it. You are placed in a cell in a local jail until which time your final fate is decided. A place for the confinement of persons in lawful detention, especially persons awaiting trial under local jurisdiction is what a jail is defined as. But, imagine a young teen, scared, alone with no one to turn to because his family is poor, some TALES OF A JAILHOUSE LIBRARIAN: MARYBETH ZEMAN You committed a crime. You are just a young teen. Your life is about to change and there is nothing you can do about it. You are placed in a cell in a local jail until which time your final fate is decided. A place for the confinement of persons in lawful detention, especially persons awaiting trial under local jurisdiction is what a jail is defined as. But, imagine a young teen, scared, alone with no one to turn to because his family is poor, some just don’t care and there is no money for bail or anyone to help him. A public defender might be assigned but rarely do these young kids ever really see the light of day and many are never reformed. Imagine being confined every day in a cell that is 6 by 8 feet in size. Imagine hearing the metal lock close behind you every time you enter it. Imagine the steel or brick walls, no window and one solid or barred door that keep you locked inside. Imagine what you would do if your movements were confined, your life not your own yet you had to desire to try and elevate yourself but did not know how? Tales of Prison Librarian will enlighten readers to the way our prison system works. The job of those working within the walls of these prisons or jails, their true feelings, frustrations and voice of one woman everyone calls Mrs. Z who decided to devote her life to making a difference to some many others. Hear the stories that she relates of the young inmates. Understand her passion for trying to help them by reaching out to them as their counselor, someone to talk to and someone who gave them some hope. Listen to these young tough kids ask her for books to read to escape to other worlds and learn what happens when some want to take the GED and are denied the right or something changes and they are no longer eligible. Enter the prison, find yourself outside the cells of so many of these young boys and hear them as they flag down this amazing woman as she relates their stories, endears you to many of them and helps readers understand just where so many have gone wrong and why our prison system needs to be overhauled. So many want to better themselves but more than likely they will return. Freedom is their goal but can they handle what it means? So many try but because there is no one to guide them on the inside or outside they fail. Close your eyes. Open them: pretend you are in that small room in which this young teen is confined. “In its most common usage in corrections units, the term lockdown can be defined as a course of action to control the movement of inmates. Confining all prisoners, except workers, to their cells until the end of the day is a good example of a "lockdown period" in a corrections schedule.” Imagine having that happen to you! But, what if you are one of those prisoners that cannot seem to avoid punishment and the prison officials decide to isolate you even further. Solitary confinement. “Solitary confinement n. the placement of a prisoner in a Federal or state prison in a cell away from other prisoners, usually as a form of internal penal discipline, but occasionally to protect the convict from other prisoners or to prevent the prisoner from causing trouble. Long-term solitary confinement may be found to be unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment." http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictio.... If a prisoner seems suicidal or will endanger him or others this is the solution. Enter the prison along with Marybeth and hear the voices of the young inmates like David, Kris, Hector, Damien and many others as the flag her down with her special cart filled with books, look at her with hope and try to understand within the depths of the abilities why the system often denies them access to the justice so many deserve. Books are their escape. Making choices taken away from them. Their every move monitored, catalogued and controlled and yet one act of kindness, one brief encounter can give them the hope, the joy and the comfort so many have been denied for so long. Join Marybeth as she tells you their stories, might bring tears to your eyes as I share what she has shared with so many her special stories of Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian and hopefully when you complete reading this review or read the book for yourself you will understand why that special golden cart of books will keep rolling on for many more years to come. Reading is power. It helps you to escape to places and worlds that you might never visit or see. Books are powerful and can fill the days of someone’s life with stories, poems, events, history and much more taking them away and allowing them to not think about what is directly in front of them metal bars! Standards, rules and regulations are just some of what is part of each inmate’s life. Libraries have rules, standards and regulations too and they classify and catalogue their inventory the same way these inmates are processed when entering the system. Cold, unfeeling and filled with uncertainty, disorganization and sometimes disjointed. Diquan is one of the students that rarely asked to see our special Librarian and counselor. When he did ask it was only for pens, pencils or to check a court date. You see Marybeth has two hats and she makes sure to wear them both at all times. Learning more about him you will find out that his brother died and he hoped to get to go to the funeral. As the events are told and Marybeth does her best to relate his request to the proper person, Diquan’s request gets heard but not given. With a mother who cannot place money in his account and he lacks phone privileges and losing his brother, when Diquan was told he would be able to attend his request was denied because his mother could not prove that he was really her other son’s brother. No exceptions made. Learn what happens to Hector who awaits death row and here Marybeth’s voice as she says she only wants to make a difference. Hector follows the rules now and is her personal assistant in the library but is his change of attitude enough to grant him a way to get his GED and finally feel some type of success? The power of books: Nothing better! But, will Hector’s newfound love of books save him? Hector and Diquan make her life so different and the author states in her own words: “ In them I recognize the source of human happiness, which I always knew all along. That the simplest things have great value.” Learn about the Five Classroom Schoolhouse and who wants to read Harry Potter, comics, James Patterson and James Woods. How do these young boys learn about the outside world if no one trains them inside to cope with it? How will they choices they make inside, even if the right ones prevent them from returning if they have no support inside or out? Choosing a book. Having the right to decide is that the first step? Meet David, Francisco and Dyshone and listen to Marybeth as she tries to explain why books need to be returned, why they are not and about the fine she received when she forgot to return her book. What happens when Dyshone’s story is told and you learn that his home was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy and his family displaced. What happens when lawyers do not return phone calls and CO’s seemed cruel to the inmates? Read what happens when Marybeth tries to explain to Dyshone how his charges might be lowered from a felony to a misdemeanor and why these boys are often so naïve they have no real understanding of what reality is and what happens when you plead from A to B to C to D and the consequences you might face. Imagine being told one thing and facing something worse! There are so many stories to share but I will let you the reader find out more about these boys on your own when you read about Kourtney and the boys in classroom 4, Dawuan, Lockdowns and Freddy and gangs. One of her greatest resources she explains in the chapter about Nausan is METRO Special Interest Prison Librarian’s Group, which is hosted by the Metropolitan Library Council in New York City. Learning about many other support groups that support reentry. She is now able to network with other correctional facilities. Empowerment: A great feeling and now Marybeth can really help these boys by helping them have the tools to get jobs on the outside, learning about a Certificate of Relief or a Certificate of Good Conduct and many other steps and organizations that might help these boys when released. Read page 195 and learn more. These boys need information and information will empower them to make the right choices. Learning just how the PUBLIC LIBRARY will help is enlightening. Read pages 196-197 and learn more. Mary, The Lady from the Library: What happens when sometimes there is not a happy ending but a great subplot added to a novel? Marybeth, our author was contacted by Mary Robinson the Outreach Services director at the Nassau Library Systems who entered her life and that of the boys and made more than just a difference: She gave them hope, dignity and the right to make your own choice! Coming to the jail, meeting the boys, interacting with them and answering and asking them questions this chapter is quite compelling and finally Sister Dolores whose wisdom, guidance and willingness to help sneak in some special books on the library cart will make you smile. Meet the CO’s and you decide whether any of them care about inmates or are they just doing their jobs. Read this book, meet the young boys and hope that the system will change and provide more education for them and even provide classes in the prison explaining their rights, the laws and give them lawyers that will guide them and help them. Wouldn’t it be nice if these boys learn that everyone starts out as a blank page and it’s up to you to fill it with the right words. Empowerment: The power of books and the power of understanding: “Jail is a place full of people who’ve made mistakes, but the world is too. We can learn from our mistakes,” and move on by making the right choices and decisions when given the right tools. Let’s work on keeping more young people on the outside and leaving prisons with empty cells. This book will enlighten readers as to what really happens behind the doors of prisons and those locked within the metal bars. Read their stories and listen to Marybeth’s words and understand that more needs to be done. Fran Lewis: Reviewer

  6. 5 out of 5

    Betsy Korb

    I had to read this because since i have been a school librarian, I am interested in all books "librarian." I loved this book because it gave a realistic view of our Juvenile Justice System, and some of the harsh realities of working with the kids there. The author recounts her career as a "Jailhouse Librarian," and her fears, frustrations, and successes! In the end, she gives hope about our troubles youth, and made me want to be a jailhouse librarian, too!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kristy Gillespie

    When I heard about the non-fiction novel Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian, I was immediately interested. (I currently work as a middle school counselor and I'm working on a School Library Media degree). Looking for a change of pace, Marybeth Zeman, a high school teacher, accepts a counseling position at a county jail in Nassau County, New York. She works with incarcerated young men in a school-like program. Realizing the need for books, Zeman borrows a rolling cart and accepts donated books for her When I heard about the non-fiction novel Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian, I was immediately interested. (I currently work as a middle school counselor and I'm working on a School Library Media degree). Looking for a change of pace, Marybeth Zeman, a high school teacher, accepts a counseling position at a county jail in Nassau County, New York. She works with incarcerated young men in a school-like program. Realizing the need for books, Zeman borrows a rolling cart and accepts donated books for her students. This library cart is a huge success for the majority of these incarcerated youth who hunger for education as well as escape, both of which can be found in a book. In addition, Zeman quickly becomes an advocate for her students. "We have to recognize that we have a very narrow window of opportunity left to re-direct incarcerated youth toward education and living productive lives. Jail isn't always the best solution. " This novel reinforces a quote by Frederick Douglass: "It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men." I'm recommending Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian to my co-workers and my classmates in the library program. I would also recommend it to anyone who works with at-risk youth.

  8. 4 out of 5

    William Bentrim

    Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian by Marybeth Zeman If you think you know kids, you might want to rethink after you read this book. Mrs. Z finds much of what she learned in counseling training had to be re-evaluated when she started a book cart at the School Program for Incarcerated Youth at a county jail in Long Island, New York. This book contains 50 some stories of wayward kids some of whom might have the potential to be productive citizens. I believe that Ms. Zeman is a factor in helping some o Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian by Marybeth Zeman If you think you know kids, you might want to rethink after you read this book. Mrs. Z finds much of what she learned in counseling training had to be re-evaluated when she started a book cart at the School Program for Incarcerated Youth at a county jail in Long Island, New York. This book contains 50 some stories of wayward kids some of whom might have the potential to be productive citizens. I believe that Ms. Zeman is a factor in helping some of those kids to transition to productive people in society. The stories are sometimes hard to read and sad. Books have always been motivation and escape for me. Ms. Zeman feels getting the kids reading is that and more, hope! A non-fiction, very worthwhile book to read. I recommend the book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Elyse Hayes

    Unique book. I heard the author speak last year. She's great. The book is a series of 2-3 page vignettes about the young men she works with in the Nassau County Jail system. She does not sugarcoat or sentimentalize anything. She has also inserted lots of factual information and statistics about incarceration in this country. The writing itself is very simple. She could have used an editor to help organize the material better. If I had not heard her speak before I read the book, it would have bee Unique book. I heard the author speak last year. She's great. The book is a series of 2-3 page vignettes about the young men she works with in the Nassau County Jail system. She does not sugarcoat or sentimentalize anything. She has also inserted lots of factual information and statistics about incarceration in this country. The writing itself is very simple. She could have used an editor to help organize the material better. If I had not heard her speak before I read the book, it would have been tough going, because it is not linear at all, and she does not explain much about her job and the "librarian" part of it (self-created). Still, bravo for doing the work she does, and for writing about it. In the end, I would not say it is inspiring as much as sobering.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Selina

    I was doing my homework... This book will break your heart. The author a former teacher worked as a librarian in a jail in america and met young offenders and got to know their stories. Through connecting over books, she gave the human touch to those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. This is real life stuff. Most of these offenders have the odds stacked against them. This is where we need librarians with the books, to minister in the dark places. In the mental hospitals, the scho I was doing my homework... This book will break your heart. The author a former teacher worked as a librarian in a jail in america and met young offenders and got to know their stories. Through connecting over books, she gave the human touch to those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. This is real life stuff. Most of these offenders have the odds stacked against them. This is where we need librarians with the books, to minister in the dark places. In the mental hospitals, the schools, the jails and most of all, the broken homes...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    Zeman's account of her experience as the school librarian in the Nassau County Correctional Center is compassionate and informative. In chapters that introduce of to some of the young men who have found themselves incarcerated, Zeman explores the challenges she faces in reaching them, and shows us how easy it is for the penal system to let these men fall through the cracks. It is a gripping, enlightening read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I won a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways, but as of this post, I have yet to receive that copy. If it ever finds its way to my house, I will provide an honest review when I'm finished reading it. Update: Still waiting on my copy of the book to arrive on my doorstep. I've been to the book's official website and sent an email to whomever reads what's sent to the contact address given there. No answer yet.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jess Miller

    This wasn't the best written book I've ever read, and as someone with a criminal justice degree, it wasn't the best book I've read on the subject of juvenile justice. However, she did a good job with her fact-checking and I think it's important to see the emotional side of the juvenile justice system that the author highlights. Her work is certainly noble.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Renee Smith

    Found this fascinating. Made me see a different side of these young adults. Takes place in the next town from me - East Meadow.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    Very interesting stuff.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Christine Filardi

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jocelyn

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jana Pedowitz

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Argyle

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ann

  21. 5 out of 5

    Corey

  22. 4 out of 5

    Haley

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Easton Miller

    An insightful look at the juvenile justice system and how books can empower young lives in big and small ways.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kari

  25. 4 out of 5

    kerrycat

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marge

  28. 5 out of 5

    Linda

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mel

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vanetra Malone

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