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Volunteers are trying to get books into the L.A. County Jail, which has no library

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Los Angeles County has the nation's largest jail system. Nearly 15,000 people are incarcerated there on any given day. Many of those people don't read well, and there is no official library system in the jail - now, a volunteer effort to create one. From Los Angeles, Emily Elena Dugdale of LAist news reports.

EMILY ELENA DUGDALE: Former jail mental health clinician Ahmanise Sanati is digging through bags of donated books in the back of her car.

AHMANISE SANATI: Oh, look at - "Kite Runner."

DUGDALE: Bags and bags of books.

SANATI: "Shades Of Gray." Wow. So much good stuff.

DUGDALE: During a career that lasted over a decade, Sanati brought in thousands of books to incarcerated people who otherwise wouldn't have much to do.

SANATI: On the door signs, it says they can have either paper or a book, but when you don't have books to give people, it really doesn't make sense. So I would bring books.

DUGDALE: At one point she organized rolling bookshelves that went to every floor of one of the main county jail facilities, known as Twin Towers.

SANATI: And every time I came back, the books were gone.

DUGDALE: But when Sanati stopped working for the jail last year, no one really stepped in to keep the books flowing.

SANATI: I've had people reach out to say, there are no more books. We need more books. Are you still going to bring books?

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

DUGDALE: Sanati's former employer, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which oversees medical care in the jail, says it's not their job to fund or manage a library. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, declined to make anyone available for a recorded interview, but it did provide written answers to questions, saying the jail maintains a law library, and it has a program for people to donate books. But ask someone on the inside...

JAYCEE CASTRO: There's no books or anything that I've seen.

DUGDALE: That's Jaycee Castro, who was just released from Twin Towers after a week in lockup.

CASTRO: There's, like, usually nothing to do in there. You're usually just sitting there, sleeping.

DUGDALE: Castro says he wishes there were an actual library.

CASTRO: It would probably keep people from losing their mind so much, you know, being stuck in the cell all day.

DUGDALE: The most recent large scale study of literacy levels amongst incarcerated people is almost 10 years old. The U.S. Department of Education found lower literacy scores than the general population. It also found those with access to libraries while incarcerated had higher rates of literacy. Other research shows access to books helps build literacy, which in turn reduces recidivism. James Nelson was incarcerated for decades and says he can vouch for the importance of reading while on the inside.

JAMES NELSON: It'd be folks in there that didn't even know how to read, but because of reading stuff in there, you know, guys work with each other and teach people how to read.

DUGDALE: He still remembers some of the authors he read while he was locked up.

CASTRO: Jonetta Barras. "Blood In My Eyes," George Jackson. It should be a law, you know, where people have access to reading material.

DUGDALE: On this day, Ahmanise Sanati is dropping off all the books she's been collecting for the L.A. County jail.

SANATI: There's that.

DUGDALE: Sheriff's deputies help unload a few dozen bags onto rolling carts to go inside for inspection.

UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: You have more right here. Oh, my God.

SANATI: I got a lot. I got a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: A whole library.

SANATI: Yeah, exactly - a whole library.

DUGDALE: There are a few rules for book donations. Among them, no hard covers, no violence, no porn, no romance novels for the guys. But for women, romance is allowed.

SANATI: Oh, my God. Have you read this book?

DUGDALE: Sanati excitedly pulls out a copy of Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential."

SANATI: Phew. This is the end of it.

DUGDALE: That one will probably make it through inspection.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Elena Dugdale in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Dugdale