Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald

3/5 stars

I have a little confession to make: I think The Shawshank Redemption might be one of the most overrated movies of all time. I’m sorry! I really wanted to like it, but when I finally watched it a few Christmases ago, I kinda thought…. well, that’s it? That’s the movie everyone’s been crazy about since the year I was born? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen what feels like every prison-related piece of media made since Shawshank, but it just felt a lot more blah than I expected.

So enter Reading Behind Bars, yet another prison-set diversion that I thought would satisfy a craving leftover from when Orange is the New Black was actually good and, being that it’s a memoir set amongst the prison-industrial complex and the last economic downturn, a timely read as well.

Jill Grunenwald first came onto my radar through an Ask a Manager interview about her time as a prison librarian. The interview is fascinating and worth a read. This book? Eh. It felt a bit like my reaction to Shawshank–after all that, this is it?

Grunenwald graduated into the 2008 recession after being promised that librarianship was about to be a booming field, with older librarians set to retire and leave a goldmine of job openings behind. Reader, they did not. The book tracks her experiences as she took the only library job available to her – the librarian at an all-male minimum security prison outside of Cleveland, Ohio. The book follows her baptism by fire as she learns to manage a library with rules and resources unlike any other.

My main gripe with this book is that Grunenwald feels too distant in her writing, like we’re not getting the whole story–the book is more a series of episodes (disciplining a rowdy inmate, gossiping about female employees who had relationships with inmates, realising her library’s catalog is stored on an Excel sheet rather than a real computer programme) than a concrete narrative. The writing feels sidetracked, like Grunenwald is constantly losing her train of thought and is just recounting random stories she can recall from over ten years ago. There isn’t much of a throughline, or a purpose, to what she says.

In the Ask a Manager interview Grunenwald spoke at length about how the job changed her perspective on the prison system and opened her eyes to the human cost of “tough on crime” policies. In the book, however, I found this content lacking. If anything I was a bit shocked at how rudely she described many of the inmates she worked with, even the ones she knew had been direct victims of the systemic racism and injustice present in the American prison system. And I wish Grunenwald had approached the topic with a bit more seriousness–there were just too many attempts at self-aware humour, too many pop culture references, to really cut to core of her story.

I really wanted to like this–but much like everyone’s favourite prison movie, this left me wanting a lot more. Grunenwald has a lot of important discussions on systemic injustice on her Instagram, which is absolutely worth a follow. I just wish more of it had made it into the book.

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