Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian:
When Reading Is More Than Passing Time

“It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

Marybeth Zeman, a teacher with over 30 years of experience, accepted a counseling position at a county jail in Nassau County, New York working with incarcerated young men in a school-like transition program.

These young men asked to see ‘Mrs. Z’ for a variety of reasons. Diquan, who Zeman describes as “an agreeable kid. So many of our students are—agreeable. You’d wonder how they did disagreeable things,” asked Zeman if she could help him arrange a trip home so that he could attend his brother’s funeral.

TalesFrancisco, who Zeman says “had the look in his black eyes. A sad tired look that you shouldn’t see in someone so young, but eyes that still glimmered with life, with determination, with a willingness to start all over again,” asked for help scheduling his GED exam.

Other students asked if Zeman had comic books, the Harry Potter book series, even Twilight; which prompted Zeman to find a rolling cart, fill it with various donated books, and visit the classrooms weekly with her “lending library.” She discovered that the majority of her students hungered for something beyond escape – an education. Her interaction with these young men reinforced her belief that they shouldn’t be written off. She quickly became an advocate for her students.”We have to recognize that we have a very narrow window of opportunity left to re-direct incarcerated youth toward education and living productive lives,” she writes. “Jail isn’t always the best solution.”

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian is a compelling account of the trials and tribulations of incarcerated youth in America. When so many children are being tried as adults to be punished rather than rehabilitated, Zelman’s experiences may give many pause.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian
Marybeth Zeman