Program promotes reading among inmates
By Melanie Davis
Mary Belanger may have retired from teaching at Green Valley School, but she did not retire from teaching. She has found another outlet for her passion of sharing knowledge.
Nearly two years ago, Belanger began bringing books in the Watauga County Detention Center for the inmates. The idea came about during a visit with one of her former students who was incarcerated at the time.
As their discussion turned to reading, the inmate mentioned the lack of available books. This particular person’s mother was providing him with books, but there were none for other inmates. This conversation lead Belanger to meet with the sheriff at the time, Mark Shook, to request permission to begin the Watauga County Detention Center Library. “When Sheriff Hagamen took office, I met with him as well as to ensure the project could continue. He has been very supportive,” said Belanger.
The library was born, mainly out of Belanger’s own book collection in the beginning. Since, the library has grown thanks to donations and many hours spent scouring secondhand stores and yard sales.
The project has continued to grow. Sue Shoemake, retired Blowing Rock school librarian, has joined Belanger in the mission. The pair now hold book discussions and assign book reports to encourage literacy.
Mary Belanger and Sue Shoemake organize books at the Watauga County Detention Center. Photo by Melanie Davis
“One of the most inspiring aspects of the project is to hear the inmates discussing books rather than inappropriate topics, such as criminal histories or relaying experiences. It is a wonderful distraction from their environment. They are learning from the books and each other,” Belanger said.
Every other Wednesday, Belanger and Shoemake load up a cart and go around to all of the cells and pods to distribute books. Inmates are allowed to check out five at a time. “It is wonderful to see them line up around the cart to chose the next two weeks’ reading,” Shoemake said.
Both women agree the attitude of the inmates is impressive. “They are open to reading and have been very polite. Now, the television in the pod is turned off when we make our rounds,” said Belanger.
“Of course we don’t ask questions. We go by first names only, unless the inmate chooses to share more information. We are here to help them learn. There is no need to know why they are here,” Shoemake added.
The detention center does not allow hardback books, only paperbacks. A good portion of the books are old and occasionally the cover will fall off after a few rounds in the detention center. Shoemake has become an expert on replacing covers. She makes a new one and the book goes back onto the shelf.
The library is in need of books. “The average population is nearing 90, with each inmate allowed to check out five at a time. That is a lot of books,” Belanger said.
Mysteries, science fiction and books of poetry are in high demand. “So many of the inmates have started writing poetry and requesting books. Unfortunately paperback poetry books are hard to find,” said Belanger.
“We are in desperate need of Spanish literature. We do not have books for the Hispanic population. Many of them can understand English, however, read only Spanish,” Belanger said.
“There a few inmates who read aloud to the Spanish-speaking prisoners, which is incredible to witness.”
Donations of paperbacks or funds to purchase more are welcome. The Civitan Club of Boone can accept the donations for the library.
Shoemake is the incoming president of the club. Contact her at (828) 278-21113 or by email at Kapaa@charter.net for drop-off points.
Local businesses are encouraged to set up a donation box in their shops to help with the cause.