Reading Behind Bars by Jill Grunenwald

In December 2008, twentysomething Jill Grunenwald graduated with her master’s degree in library science, ready to start living her dream of becoming a librarian. But the economy had a different idea. As the Great Recession reared its ugly head, jobs were scarce. After some searching, however, Jill was lucky enough to snag one of the few librarian gigs left in her home state of Ohio. The catch? The job was behind bars as the prison librarian at a men’s minimum-security prison. Talk about baptism by fire.

As an untested twentysomething woman, to say that the job was out of Jill’s comfort zone was an understatement. She was forced to adapt on the spot, speedily learning to take the metal detectors, hulking security guards, and colorful inmates in stride. Over the course of a little less than two years, Jill came to see past the bleak surroundings and the orange jumpsuits and recognize the humanity of the men stuck behind bars. They were just like every other library patron—persons who simply wanted to read, to be educated and entertained through the written word. By helping these inmates, Jill simultaneously began to recognize the humanity in everyone and to discover inner strength that she never knew she had.

At turns poignant and hilarious, Reading behind Bars is a perfect read for fans of Orange is the New Black and Shakespeare Saved My Life.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Genre: Memoir
Publication Date: July 2, 2019
Format: Kindle
Length: 360 pages

I’ve loved Jill’s writing ever since reading her first memoir, Running with a Police Escort. As another slow runner, that book really spoke to me. It felt like I was reading about my own experiences with running, though she worded things way better than I ever could.

Reading Behind Bars is Grunenwald’s second memoir, and while I’ve never stepped foot in a prison or worked as a librarian, I was magically transported into Jill’s shoes again.

I found this to be an incredibly enthralling read. I read almost all of it over the course of a weekend. I simply couldn’t put it down.

Being a librarian has always been my dream job, and being an avid reader who was actively researching going back to school to get a Master of Library Science (MLIS) for a while, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of libraries and their functions.

But prison libraries are something that I never really gave much thought to. Neither did Jill prior to landing a job at one, it turns out. Throughout the book, you’ll learn about Jill’s experiences – both the good and the bad – as a prison librarian at a low-security prison.

I learned a lot about prisons in this book. There are a lot of aspects surrounding prison life that I never even considered, and it’s interesting to read about them from the perspective of a staff member who isn’t a correctional officer.

In the prison Jill worked at, the library was unique in that it was the only space in the prison where inmates could go that didn’t have an on-duty guard. Because of this, it was the one space where inmates could go and almost forget that they were prisoners while they were inside it.

Because of my fascination with libraries, I will read literally anything about libraries or librarians. But this book is about more than just a library, it’s about the patrons and the value that the library brings them.

Reading Behind Bars comes out on July 2, 2019 and you can preorder it here.

Pssst. Jill also hosts Overdrive’s podcast, Professional Book Nerds, which is one of my favorite reading podcasts (Okay, it’s the only reading podcast I listen to). She and her co-host Adam interview a lot of authors and have interesting discussions on books.

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