NYPL opens second jail branch in Manhattan Detention Complex

A mural at the New York Public Library's new branch at the Manhattan Detention Complex was designed and painted by detainees. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

“Being in this prison, this library takes you away,” an inmate said.

A mural at the New York Public Library's new branch at the Manhattan Detention Complex was designed and painted by detainees.
A mural at the New York Public Library’s new branch at the Manhattan Detention Complex was designed and painted by detainees.

Shelves lined with more than 1,300 books — everything from fiction to comics, magazines to sci-fi — were unveiled Wednesday, as the city opened its second branch inside a city prison.

The New York Public Library branch at the Manhattan Detention Complex is adorned not only with images of classic book covers, but with a custom mural designed and painted by detainees.

“Being in this prison, this library takes you away,” said Tyrone Youmans, 48, an inmate at MDC who has been at the jail for 16 months. Youmans said he tries to read two books every week, and now the library will widely expand his options. “It gives you peace.”

Similarly, William Cuevas sees the library as a place to get away from it all. He has been in jail for about 5 months, he said.

“It gets your mind away from being in this place,” said Cuevas, 44, adding: “They just need to allow us to get more than two books at a time.”

The library will be open every other Friday to inmates in one of the complex’s two towers, and are limited to two books at a time. The NYPL will continue to operate a cart service, which holds under 500 books, in the other tower of the MDC.

NYPL president Tony Marx called the cart service “less than ideal” and said he’s happy to open another branch inside the jail. He said the concept has been a success, leading to a significant increase in readership at the women’s Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island — the site of the first prison library to open in 2016.

“We’re here to put a stake in the ground to say we believe much more is possible,” Marx said. “This is No. 2 and counting. Because everyone in this system… deserves the opportunity to learn great skills, to improve, to connect and to find the way from this place.”

Librarian Nyesha Jackson, 31, said the colorful library space will provide an atmosphere to better connect with the inmates she works with.

She said the library started opening up for some inmates about a month ago. Some of the most popular titles are books by James Patterson and The Cartel series.

“It kind of normalizes the experience for them,” she said. “It makes our interactions with them more meaningful.”

DOC assistant commissioner of adult programming Phil Terwiel said the space the library is currently in, sitting at 654 square feet, was once a storage room.

“This is a catalyst for empowerment, it’s a catalyst for hope, it’s a catalyst for change,” he said. “We have to look at the space and re-imagine it … it took some very creative minds to turn this into a reality.”

According to the DOC, the new library space will also be used for programs such as skills training — including carpentry and plumbing — creating writing, book club meetings, and narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Alison Fox