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Criminal Justice

People In LA Jails Need Books. She's Making It Happen

Ahmanise Sanati, a light-skinned woman with long black hair wearing a blue denim shirt, a green lanyard, and silver hoop earrings, holds up a copy of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in her left hand as she smiles at the camera. She's standing in front of her silver car, with brown bags and boxes of books visible from the back seat.
Former jail mental health clinician Ahmanise Sanati brought thousands of books into L.A. County jails for more than a decade while she worked there. Now she’s restarting her effort from the outside.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)
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Something gnawed at former jail mental health clinician Ahmanise Sanati early in her career. She couldn’t find books to give her incarcerated patients — some suffering from boredom, others from debilitating mental health illnesses. So, she set out to change that.

People In LA Jails Need Books, And She's Making It Happen

Sanati’s effort started with a handful of titles — people devoured fantasy novels and books in Spanish — and turned into book drives that led to thousands of donated page-turners and a partnership with Skylight Books that raised over $11,000.

At one point, she organized mobile bookshelves that went to every floor of the Twin Towers jail.

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“And every time I came back, the books were gone,” Sanati said.

She kept bringing in books for over a decade. But last year, Sanati left her job at the jails after years of growing concerns about the treatment of both incarcerated people and jail staff. In her absence, no one stepped in to keep the book project going.

Stepping Up Again

It’s not controversial that the simple act of reading is powerful medicine for people behind bars.

There’s widespread agreement that having books in jail is beneficial for the people being held there. But in the Los Angeles County jails — where nearly 15,000 people are incarcerated — there is no official library system.

Los Angeles County Jails
  • The Los Angeles County system is the nation's largest jail system and largest mental health facility. Nearly 15,000 people are incarcerated across various facilities. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department runs the jails.

  • The largest facilities are Twin Towers Correctional Facility and Men's Central Jail, located across the street from one another in downtown L.A.

So now, it’s Sanati again — this time from the outside — who is taking the initiative to get books inside.

In late January, I met Sanati — now a public school counselor — near one of her school sites in Inglewood.

She threw open her car’s hatchback and revealed a sea of boxes and paper Trader Joe’s bags bursting with donated books she was planning to drop off at the downtown jail entrance in a few days (the bursting part is literal – at least one would not survive the journey).

A like-new copy of The Kite Runner. Shades of Grey. An epic fantasy novel I had to look up later called Black Sun.

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"Wow, so much good stuff,” Sanati murmured in gratitude, as we sifted through the titles.

Building Literacy And Reducing Recidivism

Research shows that many incarcerated people haven’t finished high school and can’t read very well. It also shows that access to books in jail helps build literacy and reduce recidivism.

What Kinds of Books Do People Read In Jail?
  • Ahmanise Sanati said she got requests from incarcerated people for fantasy and adventure novels — think of a Stephen King novel or the Game of Thrones series.

  • Other kinds of books people love:

    • Crime novels
    • Spiritual books
    • Poetry
    • Self-help books
    • Books in Spanish

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department agrees, saying books can also contribute to a calmer environment.

“Keeping inmates productively occupied through inmate programming provides a powerful incentive for inmates to maintain positive behavior,” said Yael Hellman, an educational development administrator for the department’s inmate services bureau.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a literacy study amongst incarcerated people in state and federal prisons and found that 70% of incarcerated adults could not read at a fourth-grade level.

“The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure,” the report stated.

The depth of this problem is apparent when looking at studies in other countries: In Britain, for example, experts say 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

A snapshot of the 2003 Prison Literacy Survey compiled by California’s Legislative Analyst's Office in 2008.
(California Legislative Analyst's Office)

Sanati said some of her former jailed patients would even talk about how they wanted to go to prison so they could access the state prison system’s libraries.

In contrast to most local jail facilities, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a library system as well as partnerships with literary prison nonprofits like Freedom Reads, which recently brought 500 books each to two different prisons.

‘I Don’t Believe This Should Be A Charity Project’

Sanati’s former employer is the L.A. County Department of Health Services, which told me in a statement that it does not “manage, fund, or oversee the jail libraries.”

It went on: “We certainly applaud [Sanati] for her commitment and supported her using her personal time to contribute to the cause, however it is important to clarify and underscore that the book program is under the purview of [the Sheriff’s Department].”

Looking for ways to donate books to the jail?
  • Contact Ahmanise Sanati on Instagram @ahmanise – although she notes she’s just one person and may not be able to respond immediately!

  • There are some rules for book donations:

    • No hardcovers
    • No books with graphic depictions of violence
    • No pornography
    • Limit romance novels, as they can only be sent to the women’s facilities. 
    • No books that depict or describe how to create weapons or defeat jail security.
    • No books that depict or describe how to commit crimes.
    • No books that concern illegal gambling or an unlawful lottery.
  • Sanati asks donors to please not send textbooks. "That's one of the things that we actually don't need as much of," she said. "We really just need more of those books that are going to be enjoyed for the moment. Because a lot of people don't know how long they're going to be there. That's how the jail goes."

Hellman said the Sheriff’s Department maintains a law library and has a program for people to donate books.

I asked Hellman in an email how the books are made available for incarcerated people, but she declined to provide more information until she was approved by a captain for an interview. (The captain has not yet responded to our request.)

Sanati said she’d never seen or heard of the sheriff’s book program until her own efforts blew up and she was sitting on hundreds of books.

She shared a March 2021 email she sent to her then-supervisors, including Timothy Belavich, director of correctional health services, and mental health program manager Joan Hubbell, asking for more resources to make the book effort “more substantial and sustainable.”

Sanati wrote: “I don’t believe this should be a charity project solely dependent on one individual.”

In an email provided by DHS, Hubbell told Sanati, “I imagine we are all in agreement that a library is a wonderful support for clients.” DHS told me in an email that following Hubbell’s email to Sanati, “we understand that there was a conversation informing Ms. Sanati that the book donation program is under the oversight of [the Sheriff’s Department], and that subsequent to this conversation she was connected with Dr. Hellman.”

Sanati left her jail clinician job in 2022.

‘There’s No Books’

When I talked to multiple jail clinicians as well as incarcerated people about book access now, they all said about the same thing as a young man named Jaycee Castro, who just spent a week inside Twin Towers.

We're looking at the entrance to the downtown jail public lobby and inmate reception center. A concrete beige building faces us, with glass windows framed with red. The door has white signs like "put on your mask". The building is part of a large complex -- we can see other beige buildings beyond the reception center. A palm tree is to the right of the building, and there are green grass and shrubs.
The downtown jail public lobby and Inmate Reception Center.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

There's no books or anything that I've seen,” he said as we spoke last week outside the downtown public jail lobby right after his release.

Castro, who was a jail “trustee” — a role in which some incarcerated people help out with tasks like passing out food and cleaning — said there was “usually nothing to do in there. You’re usually just sitting there sleeping.”

He also complained about the disastrous conditions inside the jails.

Last fall, the ACLU documented serious concerns about the Inmate Reception Center in a court filing, including the shackling of detainees with serious mental illness to chairs “for days at a time.”

Castro said the few books he saw while incarcerated were scrounged up by one guy who “would go around, and if he'd seen a book, he'd pick it up, in case anybody asked for one.”

There were no mobile bookshelves. No stacks of books.

Sanati holds two boxes of books — one is a black box with Game of Thrones on it, and a photo of a hand holding a gold crown.
Sanati said incarcerated people have specifically asked for more fantasy books, so Game of Thrones should be popular.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

I told Castro about Sanati’s previous book drive efforts. “It would probably keep people from losing their minds so much, being stuck in their cell all day,” he said.

'Guys Work With Each Other, And Teach People How To Read'

Activists are frustrated that it’s now harder to find books behind bars.

“I think that it’s all intentionally done,” said James Nelson with the jail reform nonprofit Dignity and Power Now. Nelson was incarcerated at Men’s Central Jail in the '80s and then spent nearly 30 years in prison.

A bearded man with a light-brown skin tone wearing an open grey jacket, black shirt with white script and a black baseball cap stands in the sunlight facing toward the camera.
James Nelson of Dignity and Power Now said he was incarcerated at Men’s Central Jail in 1984.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

“It'd be folks in there that didn't even know how to read,” he said. “But because of reading stuff in there, you know, guys work with each other and teach people how to read.”

Nelson still remembers the impactful authors he read while locked up: “Jonetta Barras, Blood in My Eyes. George Jackson. It should be a law, you know, where people have access to reading materials.”

Sanati shared with me a handful of letters incarcerated people wrote praising the donated books.

“These books are important to us because we learn and are entertaining,” wrote an incarcerated person named Colton.

“Not only do books give us something to do, but they allow us to escape our harsh reality of prison when we read,” said Matthew Reyes, who identified himself as being incarcerated in Twin Towers.

A New Chapter

Ahmanise Sanati, a light-skinned woman with long black hair, wearing jeans and a denim shirt, embraces Sarah Tong, a short, light-skinned woman with red hair and black sunglasses, wearing black pants and a black and red floral shirt. They are standing outside in front of a black car with a brown box of books in it, and to their right is a black rolling cart piled high with brown and white boxes and bags of books.
Ahmanise embraces former colleague Sarah Tong, a psychiatric technician who runs a program inside the jails for incarcerated people with mental health illnesses.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Sanati is now doing what she can from the outside to get books into cells.

I went with Sanati and her former colleague, Sarah Tong, to drop off the carload of books at the jail entrance last week. Sheriff’s deputies helped unload boxes onto rolling carts to go inside for inspection.

“There’s so many pieces to the puzzle that just make someone human,” said Tong, who runs a jail program serving incarcerated patients with some of the most acute mental illnesses. “Having something to do and occupy your mind is going to help a little bit.”

Tong said when Sanati was still at the jails and books were flowing in, “some guys read like a book a day.”

‘If we didn’t bring books, there would be no books. Period.”

Despite Sanati’s efforts, there’s always a need for more. Since there’s no return system for books, people take them when they’re released, or the books get lost or tossed out.

There are a few rules for book donations: no hardcovers, no violence, no porn, no romance novels for the guys (Sanati said she’s pulling some romance novels out of the stacks to send to the women’s facilities, which are allowed to accept them.)

If we didn’t bring books, there would be no books. Period.
— Sarah Tong, program director in the L.A County jails.

While family life and a full-time job have limited Sanati’s capacity to drop off books, she’s committed to revving up her book drives again. She’s renewed her call-outs on her social media page, and last week, she received a shipment of books from a Northern California donor.

She’s also exploring a partnership with another well-known local bookstore, Eso Won — which is only online after it shuttered its brick-and-mortar site last year.

“Oh my god,” exclaimed one deputy tasked with unloading as he peered into Sanati’s car. “A whole library!”

“Exactly,” Sanati laughed. “A whole library.”

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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