Showing Up

Season 3, Episode 8

Our work in the correctional facilities in New York City didn't stop during the pandemic. We talked with the Justice Initiatives team at BPL to hear how they are connecting with patrons who are incarcerated and supporting families with loved ones in jails and prisons.  

Want to learn more about the topics brought up in this episode?

Check out this list of books related to topics brought up in this episode.

Episode Transcript

*** Ad break *** If you’re a fan of Borrowed, you might also want to check out a podcast called “The Big Shut-In” from our friends at Racecar Radio. It features long-form conversations with all kinds of people – real people, here in New York and all around the country – to hear how they’re coping during the coronavirus crisis. It’s unscripted and intimate, and it really gives you a view into people’s lives as they navigate this truly difficult time. You can find "The Big Shut-In" at and wherever you get podcasts. ****** 

Michelle Williams Hello, my name is Michelle Williams.

Adwoa Adusei Michelle is a patron at Brooklyn Public Library. Her son was incarcerated at Rikers, and while he was there, she used a program at the library that lets patrons video chat with their loved ones who are incarcerated in New York City. The program is called TeleStory.

Michelle Williams Thank goodness. I no longer need to utilize the TeleStory visit part because my son is home. That’s my grandaughter making all that noise. [Laughs]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We talked to Michelle back in January, before the pandemic shut down our branches. She was at Bedford Library for a monthly support meeting for families who use the TeleStory service. She talked about how important it was to see her son on video when he was incarcerated. She could walk to the local library branch and talk with her son in a comfortable environment. She could bring her grand-daughter, her son’s daughter, along too, so she could see her dad.

Michelle Williams And you have to cram in everything, so everyone is yelling and shouting and laughing and, it just was so hilarious, it was awesome. So, he didnt get a chance to miss me and I didn't get a chance to miss him, thanks to TeleStory.


Adwoa Adusei But because of the pandemic, the library has had to pause our TeleStory service, along with so many other in-person programs. Here’s Michael Carey, the coordinator of Justice Initiatives at Brooklyn Public Library.

A patron talks with a loved one who is incarcerated during a BPL TeleStory visit at Central Library.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Michael Carey Library branches closed on the 16th of March. At DOC, around the same time, they stopped allowing in-person visits on Rikers Island. So there was no video visits, there were no in-person visits. The only ways that you could communicate with someone in the city corrections system was was by telephone or by by physical mail.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When the pandemic brought our normal lives to a halt back in March, it threw everything into uncertainty, including the daily lives of people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.

Michael Carey There was obviously a lot of really understandable anxiety about conditions on Rikers Island during the pandemic. Definitely a sense of isolation that a lot of families were feeling that, you know, they could maybe get a phone call in with a family member if they were lucky. But, those services are really stretched thin inside the facilities. 

Adwoa Adusei The correctional system in New York City is already a frustrating and opaque system to navigate, and during the pandemic, communication challenges and health and safety concerns grew. We spoke to Michael T. Mingo Sr. in May, during our COVID-19 oral history project. Michael Mingo is a Brooklynite who was at one time incarcerated, and still has friends who are living in jails and prisons in New York City. And, a note that the sound quality of this clip is pretty poor. Michael was talking to us on the street, on a cell phone.

Michael T. Mingo Sr When they stopped everything out here, that essentially trickled over to the prison system. The visits have stopped, there is no visitation. That’s what going on now, 24 hour lockdown. No visitation, no yard movement, everybody’s in their cell. Their concern is their people on the outside, but our concern is the people on the inside. They want to make sure we’re all right, and we’re trying to make sure they’re all right. Because, in there, it’s two times worse than it is out here. They’re in there with really no medical protection. Most of the people that reached out to me, they’re all talking about when the lockdown is going to be lifted in New York.

Adwoa Adusei Anxiety among family members and friends of people who are incarcerated, like Michael Mingo, was rightfully high, as news started to emerge about COVID-19 infections at Rikers and other city jails. The rate of transmission in jails and prisons is much higher, because people are packed close together, sharing bathrooms, eating areas and common spaces, and, as Michael indicated, with less PPE.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras BPL has for a long time been a resource that helps people navigate the system, providing information and support to family members of people who are incarcerated. So, the library jumped into action, even as we were closing our physical doors.

Michael Carey We did, you know, hundreds of phone calls in those first few weeks out to TeleStory families, assessing the needs that they have, trying to connect them to resources, also answering a lot of questions that they had about what was going on inside DOC.

Ofia Ali The most common thing was about like, you know, family members having difficulties getting in contact with their loved one who is, you know, incarcerated.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Ofia Ali, who works with Michael in the Library’s Outreach Department. She interacts directly with family members of people who are incarcerated. Back in March, she called the dozens of families who used to come into the library to use our TeleStory service.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Ofia had to notify families that they could no longer come into the library to see their loved ones on video, and that they couldn’t go to the jails or the prisons either. Then, as time went on, she started helping them navigate a new online system for connecting with family and loved ones at detention centers — helping with new forms and new web platforms. She checked in on these families, as their school and work lives changed, as money became tight and the virus spread.

Adwoa Adusei Ofia and the team at BPL’s outreach services department learned that many of the families were having a hard time navigating  remote schooling. They didn’t have basic school supplies, or ways to entertain their kids when parents had to work. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, the library mailed families school supplies and activity books. It was a small bright spot in a time when everything felt uncertain. According to the Legal Aid Society, by the end of July, infection rate among Department of Correction staff and people in custody was 11 percent, much higher than New York City’s general infection rate of 2.7 percent at the time.

Ofia Ali There were times where I felt very helpless, especially when I didn't know the answer or I felt like there was nothing in place to support families. It's just like a reminder that, you know, people just don't -- or, like in society in general just don't care, you know. They're going on with their lives. And, you know, this is the population that needs a lot of support, but they just don't receive it. So in a way, it was motivation to keep moving forward and keep showing up.

Adwoa Adusei Today: we're talking about how the library shows up for people who are incarcerated and their loved ones. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Libraries have long been critical resources for people who are incarcerated. There has been changing attitudes toward prison libraries throughout history. Originally, the books and materials inside prisons were controlled by the institutions themselves, and it was thought that only moralizing or religious texts should be given to people in prison.

Adwoa Adusei Now, access to information is not as restricted in prison libraries. While State and Federal prison libraries are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and individual state departments of corrections, at county and city jails, they often partner with local public libraries to provide reading material and library services to people who are incarcerated. That’s the case with the jails and prisons in New York City. There are librarians at each of the three city library systems—Queens, Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries—who work specifically with patrons in jails and prisons.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras BPL’s chief librarian, Nick Higgins, used to be one of those public librarians who went to Rikers Island, and we talked to him a little bit about what it was like.

Nick Higgins On the ground level, what it what it looked like was me and a part time staff member and a lot of library school interns loading up a bunch of duffel bags full of paperback books, requests from people that we had seen the previous week, jumping on the Q100 bus in Long Island City and taking a trip with a bunch of family members and other service providers out to Rikers Island, loading up the books onto book carts, rolling them around to different housing areas inside the jail, talking with people about what they like to read, trying to create a much more kind of human interaction in an environment that didn't really excel or succeed at that.

Adwoa Adusei It was while he was working as a jail and prisons librarian that Nick saw an opportunity to fill another need: communication with loved ones on the outside.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Things we might take for granted, like making a phone call or sending a text or an email, those are often really hard inside prisons. It usually costs money to make a phone call or send an email, and people who are incarcerated aren't allowed cell phones.

Adwoa Adusei But, the ability to come to court using technology was relatively simple. People who are incarcerated can appear on video camera at hearings… and that gave Nick an idea.

Nick Higgins We discovered that there was already video equipment, really old clunky video equipment that the jails were using already for court visits. And we got some partners from Cisco to come in and help convert that equipment to to play nice with the equipment that we had here at the library on a secure kind of video feed to the jail.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras From that very clunky video equipment, the idea for TeleStory was born. If family members could just get to their local library, they could sit in a private room and videochat with their loved one in jail. We called the program TeleStory because originally what we wanted to do was create a moment where incarcerated parents could sit and read a book or tell a story with their children. 

Adwoa Adusei At first, TeleStory was only in a few branches, but soon the program gained momentum and got more funding. Now, TeleStory operates at twelve of BPL’s neighborhood libraries. and there are similar video visiting programs at NYPL and Queens Public Library, though, since the pandemic, visits have been paused. We are of course hoping to bring the program back as soon as health guidelines allow.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In January, our producer Virginia visited an in-person gathering of TeleStory families. It’s a monthly meeting where people who have loved ones in jail can come to share food and support each other.

Adwoa Adusei In the programming room at Bedford Library, a dozen people gathered around a buffet. There was chicken and fish, fruit salad and brownies. Remember this is 2020, January. Kids ran around on the rug, and playing with the toys that the librarians pulled out just for them. Michelle Williams, who we heard from in the beginning of this episode, and whose son had been incarcerated on Rikers Island, was there with her family. She talked to us about how hard it was to visit her son while he was there.

Flowers outside of Bedford Library, a TeleStory service site, in 2018.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Michelle Williams I used to go visit my son at least three times a week. It was a horrible trip. For me, I had to take two trains and a bus. So it was just horrible. That cut out a lot of that... then when you get there you have to go through the metal detectors, take off your shoes and all of that.

Michael Carey There's all sorts of things that you can't take you know a correctional facility for obvious reasons. So your phone, you know, of personal affects, etc.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Michael Carey, again, the coordinator of Justice Initiatives at BPL.

Michael Carey If you’re visiting with kids, they restrict what you can take into the facitlity.

Ofia Ali Some mothers who actually bring their kids to do a Televisit, the most common story is they can only bring one diaper or one bottle into the facility.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Ofia Ali again. 

Ofia Ali The entire visiting process is about six hours, so you would think, like, if they're getting hungry like every hour, they would need at least like six bottles or, you know, more than one diaper.

Shahidah Abdulmateen My name is Shahidah Abdulmateen.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Shahidah came to the family supports event with her son, an adorable sleepy-eyed toddler. She used to visit her partner on Rikers, and she described the aggressive search she experienced every time she went there.

Shahidah Abdulmateen When I was pregnant with the baby, they would, like, aggressively search me, scan my hand, then find no substances every time. But since I had the baby, I couldn’t go up there no more after I had the baby, because I’m not going up there with me and the baby after all that they did to me when I was pregnant with him.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Shahidah decided to stop visiting Rikers after her baby was born. And this is maybe the moment to say that Rikers is a place where we hold people awaiting trial, people serving sentences less than a year, and people who have violated their parole. Some detainees can spend anywhere from two months to seven months to two years awaiting their trial. Meanwhile, they are held in these pretty deplorable conditions … lawmakers and journalists have called Rikers a deteriorating, unsafe and even abusive place. 

Adwoa Adusei So, for all these reasons, it’s not a place that most people would feel comfortable bringing a small child. After her son was born, Shahidah’s partner was moved to the Manhattan House of Corrections. Shahidah tried to visit him there, bringing along their new baby. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras At Manhattan House of Corrections, she said, her son’s diaper had to be checked before she could be allowed in for a visit. That search took a long time. She waited for two hours, and after all of that, Shahidah said, she only had a few minutes to visit with her partner. By that time, her son was hot, tired and cranky.

Shahidah Abdulmateen When we got back there, that boy said done. And when he screams, you ain't gonna want to have no visit.

Adwoa Adusei Shahidah’s story reflects that this whole process, the thoroughness, the waiting, it is incredibly traumatic and punitive to family members as well as to those who are incarcerated. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When Shahidah heard about TeleStory, she hoped it would be an answer to her situation. She has since used the service many times, and enjoys coming to the library for the visits.

Shahidah Abdulmateen Like everyone know me and the baby, and they love the baby. They never forget the baby, so that’s a good thing. He gets us in. We sit there and we’re like, oh yeah, okay, and we just relax for the hour. 

Adwoa Adusei Even just that little change — having a visit with a loved one where you can relax and be with your kid together — it means a lot. During the visit, incarcerated parents will often read stories to their kids on video, and other activities as well.

Michael Carey We see families doing all sorts of things. There's obviously reading that goes on. Kids will do drawings. 

Ofia Ali I usually take the picutres and send them out to the facilities so they can actually have the physical copies with them.

Michael Carey We had one dad, and this was the only time incarcerated father was seeing his daughter, and he put together a set of cards for her. And it was all of the dates that he'd missed while he'd been locked up. So it was her birthday it was Valentine's card, Christmas card. So he made this whole set of cards and he sent them to the library so that we could give them to the to the daughter when she came in for a visit.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Many patrons who use the library’s TeleStory service end up forming close connections with library staff, and with other families who use the service. Some TeleStory patrons continue attending the monthly support meetings even after they no longer use the service. That was the case with Michelle, who continued attending TeleStory family support meetings even after her son was released from Rikers. 

Michelle Williams So we as moms, aunties, grandmas and stuff, we get to know each other, you know. And we get to share stories with each other. So that helps a lot, you know? That helps really a lot, to be able to say, my son is home and it’s like, oh, yay! Well, my husband just had to go back. So it’s like, oh my God, how are you? Like, do you need anything?

Adwoa Adusei Another patron at Bedford Library that day also no longer used TeleStory, but for a very different reason. 

Luz Lara My name is Luz Lara. I’m from Ridgewood, Queens, and I’m here because my grandson is in prison. They gave him eight years. Televisits, it’s a Godsend, it’s a blessing for me. Because when he was at Riker’s Island, I used to have the visits. But where he is now, at Auburn, upstate, they don’t have it. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Unfortunately, library video conferencing programs like TeleStory don’t exist in State prisons. The options there are phone calls or in-person visits, which can take a lot of time and money. Luz said that it costs her 55 dollars for a round trip bus ticket to visit her grandson upstate. She has to meet the bus at Broadway Junction at midnight. Because of her childhood polio, Luz has trouble walking and has to use the MTA’s Access-A-Ride, which has to be booked in advance and that costs another $5.50, money that Luz can’t spend all the time. And once she gets to the bus… it’s a four hour drive each way.

Adwoa Adusei Wow, what a long day, starting at midnight and eight hours of driving... Luz says she can receive calls from her grandson, but it’s not the same as seeing him.

Luz Lara He called me last week. He’s doing okay, it’s just that he’s struggling, you know, because he’s in maximum security So he has one hour out of his cell. 24/7 he’s in the cell. This would be wonderful if they could expand it to upstate, so this way we could see him, you know. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The Library is currently discussing expansion with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. If that goes well, people like Luz will be able to see loved ones in state prisons more easily and for free.

Adwoa Adusei And, just a note that we’ve all been hearing a lot in the past few months about divesting from police and prisons and instead investing in communities. We as a library will continue to push for investment in communities, but while courts and jails operate as they do, we will also do what we can to reduce harm within the current carceral system.

A virtual public program put on by the Justice Initiatives team at BPL in November, 2020. The event was titled 
"Know Your Rights: Tenants' Rights During the Pandemic," and can be watched online here.
(Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras To that end, the Justice Initiatives team at Brooklyn Public Library has not stopped showing up for people who are incarcerated. We talked with BPL’s correctional services librarian, Diego Sandoval Hernandez. He hasn’t been able to see his patrons in months, but he’s kept in touch with the facilities that he used to visit and he's figured out a way to keep sending them books.

Diego Sandoval Hernandez We worked with them to create a survey, to sort of try and gauge what the interest was and and create mini collections based on those needs.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Based on the survey he created, Diego figures out what patrons in jails and prisons want to read, abd ge mails books to different facilities in New York City. When we spoke to him, he was at BPL’s Central Library, surrounded by books and boxes, packing up the next shipment of reading material.

Adwoa Adusei And, Diego is at work on another program for his patrons.

Diego Sandoval Hernandez During the pandemic, I think the Department of Corrections was pressured into offering tablets that were already in use at some facilities to most people who were incarcerated in the city. And one of these facilities invited us to basically create content for these tablets. The very exciting thing about these tablets is that it would allow us to do services that we, because of the pandemic, have been unable to do. We are currently in talks on figuring out a process on where we can make "Ask A Librarian" model available through these tablets, where our patrons would submit a question with these tablets and would be able to mail out different responses to different research inquiries that we used to do when we did book cart services at the facilities.

Adwoa Adusei Even after the pandemic, the tablets will be a great resource. For many folks in prisons, having a trusted resource like a librarian available on their devices will mean access to up-to-date, factual information and an important connection to the outside world. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Diego is calling the program, "A Virtual Library for All” and it’s been funded by BPL’s incubator program. We’ll check back in with the Justice Initiatives as this program and other programs develop. We also wanted to mention another organization that does great work around information access in prisons. The Prison Library Support Network is a collective founded in 2016 by a group of librarians and activists. We’ll put a link to their website on our show page so you can read more about their current efforts, and get involved.

Adwoa Adusei Though it’s been an incredibly challenging year for our incarcerated patrons and their families, we’ve been working hard to keep them connected — and we’ll keep doing it. 


Krissa Corbett Cavouras It wouldn’t be a Borrowed episode without a Book Match segment. Our producer talked with YA Librarian Erika Spelman about the booklist created for adult and teen patrons experiencing the incarceration of a loved one. 

Erika Spelman One in fourteen children and teens experience the incarceration of a parent. And they feel invisible because teachers don't really talk about this, parents don't often talk about this. It's sort of swept under the rug, and it's important for these kids and teens to feel seen. The way I envisioned the book list is that it would have teens with incarcerated parents, books just for fun, some about justice and some about alternative family situations like foster home and things like that. 

So my first book recommendation is a brand new book called Punching the Air. It's by young adult novelist Ibi Zoboi, in collaboration with Yusef Salaam, who is one of the exonerated five from the infamous Central Park Five case in 1989. It is a novel in verse, sort of based on the author's experience. So, the author went to jail for several years before he was exonerated for a crime he did not commit. So, it's based on his experience being incarcerated. So, I'm going to read an excerpt from the book that will give you an idea of how this boy feels when he's convicted and led out of the court room. "The door of no return. It's where slaves had to go through, to get on a ship sailing to America. It's where African people lost everything and stepped out into a future they didn't know. So when the officers hold that door open, leading out of the court room, I think of that trip that never happened, and the door of no return. My life, my whole damn life before that court room, before that trial, before that night, was like Africa. And this door leads to a slave ship and maybe jail. Maybe jail is, is America."

My second book is The First Part Last by Angela Johnson. It's about a young boy, sixteen years old, who is raising his baby on his own. It's very poetic and I loved it as an adult. It's a slim book, so it might also attract reluctant readers because you pull it off the shelf, and you say to yourself, I could read this in an hour. And it's called The First Part Last because it alternates between now and then. And he tells the story of now, and how hard it is raising his little girl. He's in his parents' home, but his mother has made it clear, she is not the babysitter, he's got to do it on his own if he wants to do this. And, then it splices in chapters from "then," and he's with his girlfriend, he's with his friends, he's doing normal high school teenage things. And you don't find out until the end why, why is he doing this on his own? Where is his girlfriend? And what made him decide to keep this baby and raise her on his own when it's so hard but he never seems to regreat it at all, he loves her so much.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts. 

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall and written by Virginia Marshall and Adwoa Adusei, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman, Robin Lester Kenton, and our beta listeners on this episode: Karelisa Kimmel, LaCresha Neal, Melissa Morrone, and Kat Savage. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed will be back in two weeks. Until next time, let’s keep showing up.