Inside San Quentin State Prison, a place where minds can be free

Inmates and staff at the San Quentin Prison library. Photo: Eddie Herena / San Quentin News

Dennis Jefferson is a great reader. His taste is wide-ranging and eclectic. Among the recent books he’s enjoyed are Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun,” and “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” by Walter Mosley.

Jefferson is also an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, where he was sent after being convicted of killing his wife.

And he’s lucky, because San Quentin has a library that has few rivals in the state prison system. It currently houses 15,000 titles. There’s access to LexisNexis databases, and Senior Librarian Gabriel Loiederman even runs a monthly book club for inmates.

A recent Friday morning found the library buzzing. Nearly every seat was filled and inmates crowded the front desks with book requests. Behind the counter are inmates on staff who retrieve books for their fellow prisoners and learn library skills, including the Dewey decimal System, inventory and collection development.

Ronell “Rauch” Draper tells me there’s a high demand for “urbans,” books set in city landscapes, defined by the socioeconomic realities and the culture of their characters. He mentions Iceberg Slim, the late pimp turned writer whose memoir is “Pimp: The Story of My Life”; Sister Souljah (“The Coldest Winter Ever”); the “True to the Game” trilogy by Teri Woods; and Treasure Hernandez’s “The Baltimore Chronicles Saga.”

Iceberg Slim, the late pimp turned writer whose memoir is “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” Photo: Final Level Entertainment

Rauch himself, part of the Buddhist sangha at San Quentin, prefers “metaphysical and energy healing” books, including “The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe,” by Lynne McTaggart; and Charles F. Haanel’s “The Master Key System.”

Another inmate staff member, Larry Ryzack, who has been at San Quentin for 37 years for second-degree murder, tells me graphic novels, manga, fantasy and sci-fi are top picks. For himself, he prefers mysteries and thrillers. The most requested poetry volumes are love poems, he said, which inmates use to write letters to their sweethearts.

The legal section of the library is heavily used by inmates for research into their cases, particularly those who defend themselves in court. It’s presided over by Joseph Okello, a tall, soft-spoken prisoner.

Okello says that while inmates rarely succeed in their appeals, there have been two significant victories: Tijue McGhee challenged Proposition 57, and in 2019 the state decided in his favor, ruling that California had improperly denied parole hearings to thousands of incarcerated individuals. And Ivan Von Staich argued that dual housing of inmates during the pandemic violated the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He won, and a group of men were housed in single cells until the risk of infection subsided.

San Quentin State Prison as seen in 2020. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The prison library, though, has limited access to books. Its annual budget for buying books is $12,500 per year, according to Loiederman. Much of the collection comes from people who send books to inmates and via donations. Any hard covers are removed for security reasons.

A new group, Friends of the San Quentin Library (friendsofthesanquentinprisonlibrary.com), has been formed to support the library. The group has formed a partnership with Copperfield’s Books, and you can order books on the library’s wish list at copperfieldsbooks.com/wishlist/1182.

The library is subject to a banned-book list. Some of the books are banned for reasons like pornographic content or promotion of violence. But there are also some head-scratchers among those designated “disapproved”: Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci”; several “A Game of Thrones” titles; “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond; and a number of books on drawing, including Betty Edwards’ classic “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

My visit to the San Quentin library was a surprise. I went in a bit fearful, expecting a tightly supervised, tense experience. Instead, I was able to wander at will, speaking openly to inmates, hearing about the books they like and their enthusiasm for the library.

As you might guess, I strongly believe that books can play a big part in rehabilitation. If you agree, please donate a book today to the prison’s library through the link at Copperfield’s.



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