updated 9/8/2008 8:01:00 AM ET 2008-09-08T12:01:00

PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Like any library, the bookshelves overseen by Dennice Alexander draw visitors with diverse literary tastes.

Requests for everything from philosophy books to "The Art of Sculling" reach Alexander's desk, which is filled with lists and yellow cards cataloguing the tomes held at her branch locations. Not that it's likely Alexander's readers will take to a boat anytime soon.

Alexander is the first full-time administrator who oversees the libraries within Arkansas state prison system, which holds more than 14,000 inmates spread among 20 locations.

For the longest time, advisory boards held sway over what books made it inside the double razor-wired fences. But in recent years, Alexander has approved the books and magazines that bring light inside a system once deemed by federal courts to be a "dark and evil world."

"They're trying to rehabilitate themselves," Alexander said. "We have (prisoners) leaving every day and some of them have been in since they were 17, 16, and now they're 35 and 40. The world has changed, so they don't know about Internet or banking."

Some hesitation
For Alexander, her own switch to the prison system didn't come without some hesitation. The 61-year-old never visited a prison before taking the job, after working in the "free world" as a librarian for institutions like the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a private school. The first challenge came from walking past the fence and guard towers.

Prisoners run the day-to-day operations of the individual libraries, pasting on bar codes and organizing the books. Inmates collect the magazines and daily newspapers, either USA Today or the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, skimming through the newsprint to check for any stories that might incite the incarcerated.

The library jobs "are gravy" positions for inmates, Alexander said, meaning prisoners keep things impeccably neat among the stacks. On a surprise visit to one unit, the library administrator couldn't immediately put her hands to a copy of a book on working dogs.

The inmate running the library walked over to the shelf and immediately pulled it out.

"They can go to straight to a book. It's amazing," Alexander said. "They know where every book is in the system."

Some restrictions
The books run the gamut from beach-side reading to professional study. Each prison carries a fully stocked law library, something handled by the state Board of Corrections' compliance attorney. Beyond that, individual units have their own tastes. As a rule, the men's prisons love westerns, the state's female prisoners follow the tribulations of paperback romances.

Philosophy books, war, history and art also come requested, as do recent novels by John Grisham and the work of Cormac McCarthy. The libraries also stock novels for young adults, as many enter the prison with lower reading skills.

Books not held by the prison are requested through interlibrary loan from the UALR library or from others around the state. Alexander has a long list of requests, ranging from a book on canoeing to one outlining the work of a Russian faith healer from the turn of the 20th century.

Not every request is filled.

"We can't have a book that tells them how to make a gun, how to make a shank, erotica," Alexander said. "The mail room clerks flip through the magazines to see if there's any gang signs and anything like that. If there is, they send it back to me. We can't put that in there."

A new priority
Libraries were never a priority within the state prison system. But that thinking has evolved.

Alexander receives only $20,000 a year to purchase books, magazines and newspapers for inmates. And she's working to create late fees for overdue books, possibly charging an inmate's commissary account if a borrowed book stays out past two weeks.

As much as 90 percent of all books in circulation at the prison units come from donations.

That's an unacceptable arrangement, according to Vibeke Lehmann, who recently retired from her job as coordinator of library services and education for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Lehmann, who has written academic papers on the role of prison librarians, said reliance on donations makes it nearly impossible to provide the broad range of reading materials needed.

"You've got to make sure you're very nonjudgmental, that you kind of disregard why they are where they are and just look at them as human beings, without thinking about the crime necessarily," she said. "Most of all, (you think of) how to give them information and materials to help them prepare their return to society, because we don't want them back. We want them leaving better equipped than when they came in."

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