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John Grisham is in high demand—in county jail

K.C. Myers
Barnstable County Sheriff's Office
Brian Stokes organizes the library at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility.

Fiction is popular among incarcerated people on Cape Cod, whose library is expanding by the week.

BOURNE—Brian Stokes can't stock secondhand John Grisham novels fast enough.

While those page-turners often play out in a courtroom, they also offer inmates a momentary escape from jail. Popular beach reads by James Patterson and Clive Cussler are also among the most sought-after books at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility.

Stokes, the Falmouth Public Library's acting director, fields requests once a week when he meets with incarcerated men and women. Since September he has curated donations to fill the jail library's shelves, something he did for years at Rikers Island. Stokes was the correctional-services assistant for the New York Public Library until last year when he and his family moved to Cape Cod.

As part of the effort by the Sheriff's Office and the Falmouth Public Library to improve services, Stokes will teach inmates a course on post-9/11 American literature (think Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, or Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close).

Patrick Flanary You've been spending the last year reorganizing the jail library and connecting with some incarcerated people there. What are they reading?

Brian Stokes, acting director, Falmouth Public Library Reading is is certainly one of the most popular ways to pass time in these settings. I like to say that what's popular outside is popular inside. I can bring in 50 James Patterson novels on any given visit, and they'd all go within the first 10 minutes of my being there.

The interesting thing is when you get specific requests. There was a guy who approached me a few weeks ago who said he had read this novel by Tim Dorsey, and I was not familiar with Tim Dorsey as an author. So I came back to the Falmouth Library and I'm looking through the donations, and sure enough they had a Tim Dorsey novel that I was able to bring to this guy. And he was so endlessly happy to get a new Tim Dorsey novel. So it's very reflective of what's popular everywhere.

PF I guess a lot of people say they read because it's an escape. I suspect that's the same for people inside.

BS For sure. Inside, they read voraciously. And I think it is certainly a way to let your mind sort of go somewhere else when you're in a situation that's not great. So it's a way to pass the time, but also to let your brain go to a different place for a little bit.

PF To what degree is literacy a component? Do you find that most of the people you speak with are able to read, or do they need some guidance?

BS I think that there's always a spectrum of how advanced people's reading skills are. That's an important thing to keep in mind. Some of the work that I've been doing recently is reorganizing the collection to make specific subgenres. I made a Classics section, but a lot of that is pretty high-level reading. So at the same time I made a Young Adults section, which the library didn't have. It's important to make sure that there's something that's accessible for everyone.

PF What intrigued you early on about working with incarcerated people at Rikers Island?

BS I started out just answering letters that inmates had written to this [New York Public Library] program from all around the country. And from there it started an interest in providing this kind of service to folks who otherwise don't have a lot of access. That's really what librarianship is about these days—providing access and information, and connecting people to things. I don't think there's a place where you can make more of an impact than in these kinds of settings. So anything you can do to connect them with the information they need is huge. I've found it's something that really resonated with me quickly, and I'm just very lucky to do it.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.