N.Y. Region - New Rikers 'Librarian' Looks Familiar - nytimes.com/video
Robert Halderman was arrested last fall on charges of extorting David Letterman.
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["Street Takes, City Room" appears on screen, then cut to inside Rikers Island Prison, as Robert Halderman is being interviewed]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: I've been here ... This is my fifth week, and I think I've read seven books. But one of them I read two and a half times, because it was the only book I had when I came in.
[he laughs, then cut to a screengrab of the New York Daily News website with the headline "Pals shocked Robert 'Joe" Halderman would concoct David Letterman extortion scheme"]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: [in voice over] It took awhile for me to get anything else!
[cut to a screengrab of the New York Times website with the headline "Letterman Extortion Raises Questions for CBS"]
INTERVIEWER: [in voice over] This is Robert Halderman, the CBS news producer who was arrested and indicted last fall for trying to extort two million dollars from David Letterman.
[cut back to Halderman being interviewed]
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] What book was it?
ROBERT HALDERMAN: It was, uh, "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson.
[cut to an image of the book cover]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: [in voice over] I read it two and a half times, until I got another book.
[cut back to Halderman being interviewed]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: I brought it when I got sentenced. On the day I sentenced, I had it with me in the courtroom.
[cut to a screengrab of the New York Times website with the headline "Producer Pleads Guilty in Letterman Extortion Case", then back to Halderman as he hands out books to fellow inmates]
INTERVIEWER: [in voice over] Now, Mister Halderman loves to read, and you might think that his recent sentencing to six months in Riker's Island, after pleading guilty to second degree grand larceny, might cut into his access to books. But as it happens, as part of his mandatory work detail at Riker's, he got assigned to librarian duties at the makeshift branch that the New York Public Library runs at the jail.
[cut back to Halderman being interviewed]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: This library, for a lot of the inmates, gives them an opportunity to get books that otherwise they're not gonna be able to have. And there are a lotta guys here that do want to read, and unfortunately there's not a lotta guys ... Well, there's some guys that don't have any other access to books other than this library.
[cut to footage of the prison-slash-gymnasium]
INTERVIEWER: [in voice over] The library, which is set up weekly in the gymnasium of one of Riker's lockups, is an expansion of what was once just a small collection of books on a cart pushed from cell block to cell block.
[cut to a male librarian ("Nicholas Higgins, New York Public Library") standing behind the table of books, speaking directly to the camera]
NICHOLAS HIGGINS: I think we've been successful, really, instead of replicating a library experience, as best we can. Um, y'know, in a jail setting, and they're allowed to take a book and a magazine, and then this works as a regular library. Next week, we come in, we exchange the books with the guys, talk about what they like to read, um, try to get them the books that they want ...
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] What is the most popular book?
NICHOLAS HIGGINS: Uh, right now, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" is probably the most popular book. Um, and we burn through paperback dictionaries, which we can never have enough of those.
[cut back to Halderman being interviewed]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: A dictionary is a really valuable commodity in here, because the guys who do read or if they're writing a letter or if they're doing something, a lotta these guys are doing something on their case or something. Like a guy came in here the other day, wanted to know the definition of "concurrent." I mean, y'know, you'd think they'd know what "concurrent" is ...
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Yeah, right.
ROBERT HALDERMAN: But, so ... Y'know, having a dictionary is valuable. So I have been, I mean basically I think because I'm old, uh, I get asked a lotta questions. So you're sitting there reading and, y'know, it's sort of a constant interruption. There's a lotta downtime in here, and uh, so the opportunity for these guys to get books that they wanna read, that helps them, y'know, pass the time and stay outta trouble is a good thing.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Do they ask you for ... do you give suggestions?
ROBERT HALDERMAN: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] And what would you give, is it based on what you think the person would like, or just something that you read?
ROBERT HALDERMAN: Well, I mean, like I'll ask this guy ...
[he walks over to a prisoner browsing the books]
ROBERT HALDERMAN: Like, y'know, what do you usually read?
ROBERT ZADEL: Me? Um, I like ... I dunno. Y'know, I've done a lotta time over the years, so it--
ROBERT ZADEL: I like, I don't really go towards the sci-fi stuff.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Yeah.
ROBERT ZADEL: Um, like, for example ...
[he points to a box of books on the table]
ROBERT ZADEL: Like, sayin' as I read like almost all of this stuff at one point. And then I'll go on a different kick for a different writer. It might be Grisham, I read almost all of his--
ROBERT HALDERMAN: How about Jonathan Kellerman? Have you read--
ROBERT ZADEL: Yeah, Kellerman's great. Him and his wife.
ROBERT HALDERMAN: Yeah, right.
ROBERT ZADEL: Very good, both of them very good writers. It just depends. I see a lotta the ... A lotta the young kids, they like to go more towards the ethnicity.
ROBERT HALDERMAN: Right. "Hood" books, yeah.
ROBERT ZADEL: Like, those "hood" stories, whatever ... Hey look, if it's gonna get 'em into reading, y'know what I mean?
ROBERT ZADEL: If that's what it gets, to get 'em into reading, y'know ... Hopefully they'll go to something eventually that's a little more diverse, y'know. But if that gets 'em started, then fine.
June 25, 2010, 2:58 pm
A Library for Those With Plenty of Time to Read
By COREY KILGANNON
It seemed like ordinary book club conversation: The cheerful man with short-cropped graying hair stood gabbing with a ponytailed chap on the merits of novels by John Grisham and Jonathan Kellerman.
But this was not your ordinary book club setting this recent weekday. The men were at a special "standing library" run by the New York Public Library at Rikers Island, and they both wore green jumpsuits with the letters "DOC" on the back, for New York City's Department of Correction.
The cheerful man was none other than Joe Halderman, the CBS news producer charged last fall with trying to extort $2 million from David Letterman. He pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny and was sentenced last month to six months in jail.
Jail has certainly not cut into Mr. Halderman's reading time, nor his access to books. As part of his mandatory work detail, he has been assigned as an inmate librarian at a makeshift library branch started in March and run by Nicholas Higgins, 32, the supervising librarian of the library's Correctional Services Program.
Every week - usually on Thursdays - Mr. Higgins takes a city bus to Rikers Island, lugging a sack of books that inmates have requested. He heads to the Eric M. Taylor Center, one of the nine jails on Rikers Island, and moves about 2,000 books shelved neatly in plastic bread crates out of jail storage and into the center's gymnasium.
They are organized into categories. One recent weekday, the classics section included works by Shakespeare, Hemingway and Bukowski. There were two copies of "Crime and Punishment."
Inmates were brought down from one section of the jail at a time and browsed the books. One of them, John Ferris, a 41-year-old Brooklyn man sentenced for stealing a car, was looking at books about auto repair - not so he could steal another car when released in August, he said, but so he could get a job at a garage.
The inmates showed their jail identification to one of the librarians who logged their names and books. Then they sat in plastic chairs with rounded edges, reading their books, waiting to be taken back to their cells.
"Being able to read helps keep incidents down and keeps the inmates' minds occupied because they're doing something constructive," said Juan Rosado, a corrections officer who helps inmates access the library. "It helps keep their minds at ease, and helps avoids fights." The program has been credited by the city's corrections commissioner, Dora Schriro, with keeping inmates focused on learning and enrichment, and with curtailing fights, misbehavior and other distractions.
Mr. Rosado paused and called for nearby officers to bring down more inmates: "Hey, call 11-Lower and tell them to get ready for library."
Back at the cramped cubicles that Mr. Higgins and his staff use at the library's Mid-Manhattan branch, a part-time staff member, Luis Torres, and an intern, Sarah Ball, scrambled to fill inmates' book requests and put them aside - "Black Panthers for Beginners," "Soul on Ice," "In Cold Blood" and more.
Other tasks including cutting the covers off hardcover books, to comply with jail regulations. Jail guards also spot-check books for "messages written into them," Mr. Higgins said.
"Some people might ask, 'Why are you giving them books? They're bad guys,'" Mr. Higgins said. "But if they're reading Harry Potter, they're not going to get into trouble."
Mr. Higgins also wheels a cart loaded with books around several other jails on Rikers Island. This includes serving inmates in solitary confinement in a section nicknamed "the Bing." While other inmates are limited to borrowing one book and one magazine apiece, inmates in the Bing are allowed an extra book.
"They have more time alone and more of a need for books," Mr. Higgins explained. "And we always get them back. The Bing has a very high return rate."
Typically, inmates in solitary write down their book requests for Mr. Higgins to fill. "We've had guys just write down that 'I want a thick book,'" he said, adding that one inmate who was overjoyed to borrow a book told Mr. Higgins that he was so bored that he had "spent the previous week counting the hairs on his arm."
One inmate in the Bing was delighted that Mr. Higgins was able to fulfill his request for some Homer, and the epic poem "Gilgamesh."
Mr. Higgins's unit is also something of a reference desk for city and state inmates. It answers perhaps 60 letters a week requesting information about laws and statutes relating to inmates' appeals or the services they may seek upon their release, he said. Other inmates write seeking information on family members or friends. There are strict regulations regarding information that library officials may provide, Mr. Higgins said.
The unit also provides library orientation programs to state prisons and publishes Connections, a free guide to post-prison services for inmates. The unit also brings children's librarians to Rikers to read to the sons and daughters of female inmates who are permitted to live at the jail's nursery.
The library's prison program has no budget to buy books and must rely on donations from individuals and library branches. The most requested kinds of books, Mr. Higgins said, are so-called urban books, or "street lit" - what inmates call "hood books."
"A lot of inmates come in and just say, 'I want a hood book,'" he said.
The most popular magazine is National Geographic, and among mainstream authors, James Patterson is "by far" the most popular request, Mr. Higgins said, adding, "They also like books with conspiracy theory plots."
He said the two most requested books among inmates were "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and any kind of dictionary.
Back at the jail, Mr. Halderman explained that many inmates used dictionaries to figure out words they needed to know to explore appealing their convictions.
Mr. Halderman approached the inmate with the ponytail, who was scrutinizing titles of mainstream fiction. "What do you usually read?" he asked the man, Robert Zadel, 43, of Riverhead, N.Y., who is serving a sentence for shoplifting. ("It was petty larceny, but I have a 30-page rap sheet," Mr. Zadel said.)
Mr. Halderman held up a copy of Michael Crichton's "Prey" to another inmate and said, "Have you read this one? It's great."
Mr. Halderman, who is due out in September, said he enjoyed working at the library. "For me, it's an opportunity to be around books, though I do get books sent from family and friends," he said.
He would not discuss his criminal case, but was happy to chat about his book preferences, including, recently, some of Hemingway's journalistic works, like "Hemingway on Hunting" and the new Scott Turow book, "Innocent."
"No pun intended," he said with a laugh after saying the title.