Services for the Imprisoned
- 1 Success Stories
- 2 Tips for Providing Quality Services to those in Prison
- 3 Blogs/Websites to Watch
- 4 Specific Blog Posts/Articles/Books to Check Out
- 5 Works Cited
- The Palm Beach County Library System in Florida has been providing outreach to local jails and stockades since about 1998. PBCLS donates discarded paperbacks and magazines for prisoners. They also have a rotating deposit collection of approximately 3000 young adult paperbacks which they distribute to local juvenile stockades (W. Reimsnyder, personal communication, November 25, 2008).
- Books Without Barriers is a collaboration between the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, and the local county sheriff's department. Librarians talk to inmates about children's literature, then videotape them reading a book and mail the video to their children (Arnold, 2006).
- The Alternatives Library Books in Prison project focuses on poetry workshops. The poems written by residents at the MacCormick Secure Center near Ithaca, New York, are compiled in books (Andersen, 2003).
- The Bucks County, Pennsylvania, prison library partners with the local Lions Club to create Braille reading material for the blind, produced by inmates (Geary, 2003).
- Through the Indiana State Library's Read-To-Me program, inmates can record themselves reading books and mail the video to their children (Albertson, 2001).
Tips for Providing Quality Services to those in Prison
Types of Services
Being a prison librarian is not the only way to provide service to the incarcerated. Public librarians can provide outreach services to those held in county jails, stockades or juvenile detention centers (McCook, 2004). Public librarians can help prisoners connect with their children with book discussions or story times (Greenway, 2004). They can also provide services to those who have been released from prison, in order to ease their transition back into society (Dowling, 2007).
Preparing for a Career as a Prison Librarian
Prison librarians may be required to undergo extensive training alongside regular prison staff and learn how to search inmates and cells, cuff inmates, and so on (Jahnke, 2006). Though the thought of undergoing this training may be alarming, surveys from prison librarians generally reveal that safety is not a major concern. Surrounded by guards and alarm systems, there is no need to be over-anxious. Besides, "the library is one privilege no [inmate] wants to risk losing" by causing too many problems, one prison librarian pointed out (Geary, 2003). Prison librarian Stephanie Thorson goes so far as to say "I feel safer in prison than I do walking down the streets sometimes" (Dixen, 2001).
It is important to be vocal in advocacy for prison libraries. When it comes time to cut funding, the negative public attitude towards perceived "perks" make cutting funding easier for lawmakers. When Arizona decide to close all its prison law libraries except for one, "the librarians were universally distressed but were not consulted" (Geary, 2003). If librarians are vocal about their support and passion for prison library services, lawmakers are more likely to learn that budgets for these important services cannot be cut without a fight.
There are many ways to advocate for library services to the incarcerated: contacting politicians and legislators, forming special interest groups on prison services, submitting grant proposals for library programs and services for those in prison, and more (Lehmann, 2003).
- Education, such as GED preparation (Reese, 2007)
- Spanish language materials
- Drug addiction/revovery
- Sexual abuse
- Parenting skills
- Health information (in English and Spanish)
- Materials for the elderly, especially regarding healthcare
- Legal materials (Greenway, 2007).
NOTE: make sure that information is available "on the level at which the individual can understand it" and "in a variety of formats, so that it is accessible for those with varying needs and disabilities" (Greenway, 2007).
Prison librarians must be especially careful to provide legal information but no interpretation of the information. "Prisoners are supposed to have access to public defenders who can assist them with interpreting laws or cases" (Dixen, 2001).
Sometimes it feels as if a librarian's beliefs--that "everyone has the right to information and the right to confidentiality"--is counter to other prison staff's beliefs concerning prisoners (Jahnke, 2006). Fighting the battle against censorship may be much more difficult for the prison librarian than it is for other librarians.
Both prison librarians and public librarians can come up with creative ways to partner with other community agencies in order to provide programming, transportation and funding for the incarcerated (Dowling, 2007).
Partnering with local literacy organizations may be very fruitful, as many prisoners lack basic literacy skills and need materials and tutoring to help them improve (Greenway, 2007).
Running a Prison Library
Prison libraries must have an open design which allows the librarian to have a clear line of sight which allows him/her to observe all patrons at all times (Reese, 2007).
Staff should strive to create an atmosphere which is "welcoming, neutral and secure" and to "provide secure places where people who have lost their freedom are still entitled to intellectual freedom" (Jahnke, 2007). Librarians must serve all, "regardless of sentence, security designation, or placement in the institution" (Reese, 2007).
Qualified inmates can provide invaluable clerical assistance, allowing the librarian more time to spend on professional duties. This responsibility benefits the inmates as well, often instilling in them a sense of pride and purpose (Greenway, 2007).
Librarians may need to be especially vocal in their requests for adequate space for prison librarians, and the separation of professional duties and security issues. "Librarians should be involved as little as possible in security initiatives" (Singer, 2000). Advocacy of prison librarianship as a professional career (instead of something which can be done using only clerical staff) should be a strong focus as well (Geary, 2003).
Dealing with Difficulties
Though some may think working with prisoners would be the most difficult aspect of this job, many prison librarians say it is working with other prison staff which is most difficult. Transporting prisoners to and from the library can be tedious and arduous and some prison staff do not understand why inmates cannot be given a paper copy of the library's holdings, select books and have them delivered to their cells (Jahnke, 2006).
Prison librarians must remember that at any moment their routine may be interrupted by a security breach. Inside a prison, the need for security outweighs any other need, and there is "always a potential for violence in the library" (Greenway, 2007). Theft and damage of popular materials is a major problem in many prison libraries, so these materials may need to be monitored more carefully for damage and replaced more frequently (Greewnway, 2007).
Blogs/Websites to Watch
- ALA Prison Libraries interface
- ASCLA Library Services to Prisoners forum
- Institutional Library Services blog
- Prison Librarian blog
- Prison Library listserv
Specific Blog Posts/Articles/Books to Check Out
- Greenway, Sandra. (2007). Library services behind bars. Bookmobile and Outreach Services, 10(2), 43-64.
- Lehmann, V. (2003). Planning and implementing prison libraries: Strategies and resources. IFLA Journal, 29(4), 301-7.
For an international perspective on prison services in libraries, check out this article and its extensive list of works cited.
- Lehmann, V. (2000). Prison librarians needed: A challenging career for those with the right professional and human skills. IFLA Journal, 26(2), 123-8.
If you are considering a career as a prison librarian, this article gives advice about personality traits, coursework, dealing with prison staff and more.
- Rubin, R., & Suvak, D. (1995). Libraries inside: A practical guide for prison librarians. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Articles from prison librarians and helpful appendices such as a sample collection development policy.
- Vogel, B. (1995). Down for the count: A prison library handbook. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Albertson, M. (2001). A second chance for a family's survival: The Indiana State Library's Read-To-Me program. Indiana Libraries, 20(2), 27-8.
Andersen, L. (2003). Expanding our work with prisoners. Progressive Librarian, 22, 62-4.
Arnold, R., & Colburn, N. (2006). From a distance. School Library Journal, 52(9), 32.
Dixen, R., & Thorson, S. (2001). How librarians serve people in prison. Computers in Libraries, 21(9), 48-53.
Dowling, B. (2007). Public libraries and the ex-offender. Public Libraries, 46(6), 44-8.
Geary, M. (2003). Trends in prison library services. Bookmobiles and Outreach Services, 6(1), 79-90.
Greenway, Sandra. (2007). Library services behind bars. Bookmobile and Outreach Services, 10(2), 43-64.
Jahnke, E. (2006). Institutional library services: Where positive change takes place. PNLA Quarterly, 71(1), 17-20.
Jahnke, E. (2007). Prison libraries guard intellectual freedom. Alki, 23(3), 15-23.
McCook, K. (2004). Public libraries and people in jail. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44(1), 26-30.
Reese, D., & Austin, B. (2007). Standards in Colorado correctional libraries: Uniting service and security. Colorado Libraries, 33(1), 26-9.
Singer, G. (2000). Prison libraries inside out. Education Libraries, 24(1), 11-16.