Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Prison Libraries and the Internet

By Glennor Shirley, MSDE, Coordinator, Correctional Education Libraries.

The latest Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that there are over 2 million prisoners in Federal, state prisons and jails, and that at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released to parole supervision.  In 2001, 592,000 prisoners were released to the community after serving time in prison. [i] When ex offenders return to society, they face the digital divide because while incarcerated, they have no access to the Internet.  Someone who has been incarcerated for over 15 years has had no opportunity to use the Internet and thus his or her knowledge is limited to exaggerated concepts of what it is all about, or complete ignorance of its possibilities.  If this inmate has not enrolled in the educational, vocational, or career employment programs he or she is not likely to have ever used computers.

In a recent survey of prison libraries reference collection, many librarians said their libraries had no computers.  In institutions with computers that were accessible to inmates, they contained programs with educational and or legal content, and a few had games like Scrabble. [ii]   In some states like Maryland, where librarians had a computer with Internet access, there were stringent rules governing use. Some rules included:  The Internet computer must be located in areas inaccessible to inmates, librarians should use an external modem that is locked away, and the Internet is not be used in the presence of inmates. Implication for the librarians include: Having to personally find the information for the inmate; time delay before the information is available; employing very good reference interview skills since an incorrect interpretation of requests means repeating the exercise; requests must be written and a record kept as a safeguard against future grievances; it is extra work for the one person library manager.

Ex offenders needs information on getting a job, career opportunities, housing, establishing credit, pursuing GED, addresses of community resources like substance abuse centers and homeless shelters, getting a Social Security number, identifying funds to start their own businesses, writing business plans, financial aid, and reestablishing family relationships.  Much of this information is available on the Internet, but the inmate who has never used the Internet, is unaware how to access it for his information needs.  Prior to incarceration many prisoners never visited their local public libraries therefore it is unlikely that as ex offenders they will consider this resource.

To help bridge the digital divide and create awareness of the public libraries collections, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, using an LSTA grant, developed a CD ROM, Discovering the Internet@ Your Library, a tutorial to help inmates understand the Internet.  This interactive CD ROM promotes the public library as a place that provides access to the Internet as well as to the kinds of information that will help in the transition back to the community.  The CD ROM highlights Internet sites for housing, online GED practice test, job and career sites, community resources, rental and other housing information, and web addresses of local public officials.  To reduce the intimidation for the inmate who has reading difficulty, the CD ROM, instead of pure text, uses a narrator to describe search strategies.  The narration on the CD-ROM begins, “When you return to your community, you can visit your local public library to get access to the Internet to help you search for jobs, housing, or even to use computers to write your resumes or to develop fliers for your business.”  The narrator explains basic Internet terms like “ search engine”, “web address”, and the meaning of the hourglass. The CD ROM identifies specific libraries and agencies in Maryland, but anyone in any state without knowledge of the Internet can benefit from the tutorial, which lasts about forty-five minutes.

Since its development Maryland Correctional Education libraries has received many requests for the CD-ROM from adult and juvenile correctional facilities across the country.  Although it is copyrighted to Maryland State Department of Education, copies have been made available the only cost being for postage and for making the copy.

In Maryland, as an incentive, inmates who complete the tutorial and a CD ROM use- survey, receive a certificate.  Those of us who work in the prison system know that inmates love to get certificate because they use it as evidence of positive accomplishment during Parole hearings.

For questions about the CD-Rom please email Glennor Shirley at gshirley@msde.state.md.us.

[i] Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm
[ii] Questionnaire to prison librarians in 2003 by Glennor Shirley

--Glennor Shirley is the Library Coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries.  Prior to that she has served as the Former Manager, Randallstown Branch of Baltimore County Library and East Columbia Branch, Howard County Library; as the Bookmobile Librarian, Jamaica Library Service; and as a Special Librarian for Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. She blogs at http://prisonlibrarian.blogspot.com/.


Annual Conference Preview

By Jan Meadows, Bookmobile Supervisor, Pikes Peak Library District.

The ALA Conference in Orlando is only 24 days away as I write this! Don’t forget to mark your calendars and attend the Bookmobile program, “Automating Your Bookmobile: Satellites and Beyond” presented by Tom Walker, Systems Manager for the Charleston County Public Library. It is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. – noon, Sunday, June 27 in room 207 of the Orange County Convention Center.

Take your IT/Systems staff with you; it can be a bonding experience! There are many Outreach program opportunities this year. For a list of all of the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services programs visit www.ala.org/ala/olos/olosprograms/olosprograms.htm and click on “Programs”.

ALA President Carla Hayden has mounted an outstanding campaign this year for Equity of Access. Bookmobile and Outreach staffs have been on this bandwagon for a long time, doing their best to provide equal service to all patrons. Now, thanks to Ms. Hayden’s support, we aren’t fighting this battle alone. Your time to shine has arrived!

Recently someone emailed me wanting to know my view on the future of Outreach Services. It made me stop and think and this is what I came up with. I believe that outreach staff, administrators and all other library staff need to rethink what their concept of outreach is. Not all outreach has to involve “leaving the building”. In fact, I feel that almost all services provided by libraries are in some way outreach services. By providing programs for children, teens, adults and seniors, libraries are “reaching out” to draw people into the library. Special collections, programs and services for ethnic/immigrant populations are outreach services provided from inside the library. By providing assistive technology and access to buildings for persons of disabilities, libraries are once again reaching out. Literacy services are an excellent example of outreach. Library web sites offering remote placing of reserves, access to the catalog and Internet sites that have been checked and verified to have correct information are high tech outreach services. We really are all in this Outreach business together. It would behoove all of us to stop thinking outreach vs. inside staff and think teamwork!

That said, it in no way means that “traditional” outreach is no longer needed. Quite the opposite! In order to truly provide equitable service to all, leaving the building and going to the people is quite often the only way to reach them. Bookmobile service, books by mail, homebound service and deposit collections are some of these traditional services and are still viable methods for providing equal access. For example, in our library district, the eastern plains area covers a huge expanse of land and has 7 small towns strewn over it. Ranches and homes are spread far apart. Building a branch in any one of the towns would not meet the needs of the people in the other towns and surrounding areas. Building a branch in each town is not possible. Therefore, bookmobile service is the most efficient, cost effective way to serve these patrons. In the past couple of years we have expanded bookmobile service from once a week or every other week in each town, to several times a week in the larger bergs and at least once a week in the smaller communities to meet their growing needs.

I see the wave of the future for bookmobile/outreach service to be in providing specialized services to: seniors in senior residences, assisted living facilities and nursing homes; at risk young children in daycare and Head Start programs; communities of cultural groups and immigrants; low income areas for job search and homework help with mobile online access. Those are just a few samples of the numerous possibilities out there once you take note of the diversity of your community. An excellent outreach staff will find and meet such needs. It will take thinking outside the box! Good research and facts, enthusiasm, creative ideas for implementation and funding, and a well thought out and presented proposal and work plan, that clearly maps out your vision for the service you want to provide, will go a long way in getting the administrators to “buy in”. Listen carefully to the reasons given if your plan is not accepted. Go back, regroup, think critically, get or fix what you heard them say was missing or not feasible and then present it again. You won’t accept defeat easily if you truly believe in your idea!

I believe in equity of access and urge you to be the leaders in your library that promote it. As they say, no one should be left behind, and it is our job to be sure they are not. Be proud of your service and be bold in promoting it! Carla Hayden has lead the way but it will take each of us to keep equitable service alive and growing.

In closing let me say how much I have enjoyed hearing from so many outreach and bookmobile staff since I started doing this column. Please continue to contact me at jmeadows@ppld.org I am learning so much from all of you!

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