Reaching Inmates

Jail program promotes writing, sharing, healing

“These are our neighbors. They’re just living here for now.”
                - Pamela McCarter, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library outreach librarian

Thirty women sit in plastic chairs around small tables in the cinderblock room, many with eyes closed, tapping their feet or fingers, some humming and smiling as the music of Miles Davis plays. “This takes me away – far away,” says one participant, an inmate at Mecklenburg County’s Jail North.

Pamela McCarter and other Library outreach staff visit two County correctional facilities to deliver monthly programs for men, women, and youthful offenders. Today’s program starts with the theme of jazz music, in celebration of jazz appreciation month. Pam leads a discussion of the evolution of jazz, playing a variety of artists and noting the way each generation’s music influences the sound of the next. But mostly the group talks about the messages embedded in the music, with and without the use of words. They talk about the way music makes them feel and what it brings to mind. They recall playing instruments and singing as children. Dancing and eating in restaurants. They talk, and they remember.

Next Pamela introduces poetry, and the women read three poems, hearing the rhythm in the words. Pamela reads aloud “Ballad” by Sonia Sanchez, and one woman, eyes closed, says “I could imagine this read to some nice Quincy Jones!”

Pamela invites the participants to write down their memories, as jazz plays softly in the background. They share:

“You take me to a place far away in my mind. A place of love.”

“My concrete lawn has awakened to yet another cloudy day.”

“As I sit in my room thinking of you, my hair standing straight up feels like stone.”

“I thought I had a true friend but I had a true fake.”

“Hide and seek…you are all I see”

The women write eloquently about friendship, hope, love, regret, loss. They write, they talk, and they feel.

Outreach Manager Meryle Leonard is passionate about serving inmates. "Our Library system is committed to every member of our community, and the jails are no exception. We meet people wherever they need us." Pamela adds, "These women need to know there are people who believe in them. I don’t know their history, I don’t pre-judge. I just share our Library’s resources with them. Some of the most avid readers I know are inmates – they read everything, and they write. They have a lot of processing to do, and writing helps them do that.”

One participant is writing a children's book for her grandson. Another mentions that she’s read 22 books in the 8 months she’s served. “I didn’t know the Library has more than books, but I love this program. It challenges me, brings out my creativity, and stimulates my mind.”

By the end of the hour, the mood in the room has transformed. Many of the women are still talking about music they enjoy, concerts they’ve seen, poems and stories they’re writing and reading, and what they’re feeling. Pamela looks around, and she is satisfied. “Our Library really does improve lives. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone feels something, and everyone is important. If this program can help to bring that out, we’ve done something good.”

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