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'Jailhouse Librarian' seeks to inspire juveniles with literature

Marybeth Zeman, author of "Tales of a Jailhouse

Marybeth Zeman, author of "Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian," is photographed outside the gates of the Nassau County Jail in East Meadow, June 26, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Marybeth Zeman is not your typical librarian. She doesn't preside over a vast collection, issues no library cards and doesn't charge fines when borrowers hold books past their due dates.

That's often a good thing, she said of her patrons' tendency to cling to their selections, which include James Patterson suspense thrillers, comic books and inspirational tales. The choices hardly vary from those a typical 16- or 17-year-old might make, but all of Zeman's customers are unusual: They are juveniles held at the Nassau County jail.

Zeman's interactions with young readers held at the East Meadow facility who have been charged with or convicted of minor and serious crimes alike fill a book of vignettes called "Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time."

That they find in the books on the shelves of her creaky cart a means of escape, expression or empathy gives Zeman encouragement that they might find in those pages a means to make different, better choices once they leave the jail. The most coveted titles carry value to her patrons far beyond their cover prices.

"They have an absolute need to read," said Zeman of Brooklyn, who is known on the tiers as Mrs. Z. "There was a lack of reading material and I thought I was just providing them with reading material at first. I really did not see the full impact that developing a little school library would have."

Her collection of 150 books are donated or ordered through the East Meadow school district, of which she is a 25-year employee. The district also administers the high school equivalency exam and conducts classes.

Zeman has worked in the Nassau County jail for nearly five years, serving as a transitional counselor and librarian. She holds three master's degrees, one in library science.


Caretaker and counselor

"The great thing about reading books is that they can change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even hours every day," she writes at the start of "David," one of 52 chapters in the 327-page book.

"David" is a pseudonym for one of the juveniles she grants anonymity. He's chronically late when he returns books, if he returns them at all. Zeman's exchange with him in the book is more that of a counselor than an official guardian of sacred texts.

"David wasn't borrowing books as much as racketeering them," she writes. "He'd be signing books from the cart on a regular basis and almost as regularly, his cell was being shaken down."

Shakedowns, in which officers search cells for suspected contraband, are part of life in a correctional facility.

"You have the books you signed out, David?" she recalls in a snippet of conversation as she rolls her squeaky cart from room to room.

He replies, "Tomorrow. I'll bring them back tomorrow."

David is one of Zeman's most interesting interlocutors. He prides himself on having passed the high school equivalency test despite never having attended high school.

Zeman said most of her borrowers had never checked a book out of a public library or owned a library card. Some had never visited a library at all.


'There's always hope'

Zeman has also shown movies that spark discussion and inspire. She screened "Invictus," the movie featuring the life of Nelson Mandela, who was once an inmate in a notoriously harsh prison and forced labor camp on Robben Island in South Africa.

Mandela, who took up arms against the government, rose to the highest post in South Africa after having spent decades in prisons as one of the racist, apartheid state's most hated outlaws.

In her book, Zeman points out other famous people who have served time behind bars but used the stay to create historical texts, such as Henry David Thoreau, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul the Apostle.

"When they ask for a James Patterson or Stuart Woods there's hope," Zeman writes in the chapter "Addy." "No matter the book, there's always hope. The hope that reading will help us transcend whatever drags us down."

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