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Our Trash Becomes Jail's Treasure

DeKalb County Public Library, GA

Innovation Summary

In five years we’ve given 50,000 donated books to our local jail to enrich its lending library. This kept the books out of the trash and enabled many prisoners to have a wide array of books from which to choose pleasure and educational reading materials.

Problem Statement

The Friends of the Library receive many books they are unable to sell. In the past these went into the trash and then our county landfill. Our local jail was required to maintain a legal library for certification, but, due to budget limitations, they had let their lending library fall into decline. We realized we could keep materials out of the trash (which after this program started began to be in part recycled) and also encourage and facilitate prisoners having access to pleasure and educational reading materials by passing these books on to the jail. Over time staff became aware of this effort and suggested adding some uncatalogued paperbacks and old magazines the library had weeded. Using materials this way offers prisoners a chance to improve their reading skills and even job preparedness. Sharing these materials is an aspect of our efforts to model sound environmental practices, offer prisoners the chance to improve their economic futures, and improve our community’s social equity through a partnership that shares materials whose continued value had not been realized.


The friends group leaves books rejected from sales for library staff to cull and box for jail. Books appropriate to the jail’s standards are boxed and held until a load of at least a thousand is ready to be picked up. The jail sends staff to pick up the books and take them to the jail library where they are processed and shelved. Jail staff pulls a mix of book types and puts them on book trucks which are taken by jail staff to pods for prisoners to peruse and borrow. Those books are collected when prisoners are finished and the book trucks come around again. Over the course of this effort, magazines donated by citizens or the library have been added to the books. It has been noted that some prisoners will take magazines while they do not take books.


A new working partnership has grown between the library, our friends group and the sheriff’s office. Disposed of materials donated by library patrons and community members are being kept out of the trash and used in a manner that is a better use of them than even recycling would achieve. This effort has long term economic development impact on our community by encouraging reading and other skills needed for learning and gainful employment once the prisoners leave jail. The awareness of and involvement with this program gives members of the friends group, library and jail staffs as well as the prisoners a greater sense of social equity and how small efforts can affect it. This effort can be easily replicated in many locales and at different scales of effort and number.