The life of a prison librarian

A prisoner in the U.S. reads through a book in the library (Morry Gash/Associated Press)

Repeated on The Current (03/08/12)

For many people, prison would not be high on their list of places to go voluntarily.

But writer Jean Charbonneau is unique, much like his current occupation. He's been a prison librarian for the past several years in Maryland, far away from his home province in Quebec.

As a writer, he's always been interested in leaving his comfort zone and exploring the human condition. When he came across a job offer for prison librarian, he took it. He's since spent time organizing books and choosing literature for prisoners at both minimum and maximum security jails.

It would be a strange experience for most, but Charbonneau found a calling right away.

"I had the feeling that what was I doing there as a librarian was important," he said in The Current's documentary "Shelf Life," adding, "I don't how many inmates have told me that they have never read a book before they were incarcerated. They had no idea about books and literature and now they're hooked."

 "As I discovered a new world in prison they discovered a new world in the library through literature and reading and that made me feel part of something useful."

In addition to running the prison library, he also hires inmates to work as clerks to put away and distribute books. He leads discussions about literature, which gives him a particular feeling of reward.

"I feel like I'm giving them something really rich, and that nobody else can give them and they can feed on it," Charbonneau said.

He's tried to expose inmates to the wide range of literature that's out there, but says he does notice that the most common book requests are for true crime. One young man once told him that his favourite books were about serial killers and that all he enjoyed reading were books about serial killers.

"We don't have a lot of them for obvious reasons," Charbonneau said.