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


Paroled! A Librarian Leaves Jail

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

Going through my files recently, I came upon my written reflections on my last work day in a detention center in 1995. I reproduce it here exactly as I wrote it then.

Paroled! A Librarian Leaves Jail.
"You know John," the prisoner said to the public defender, who came into the library to bid me farewell. "I'm only a prisoner, and don't know much, but if you ask me, they should get Ms Shirley to go to all the prisons to teach them about rehabilitation." He removed his glasses, folded his arms, continued to talk to John as if I were not there. "Most of us inmates come in here angry, resentful and hostile. We don't want to listen to or obey anyone, we don't want to hear about rehabilitation. Look at what Ms Shirley provided for us! Books about everything to help us improve ourselves." His hands swept the perimeter of the library finally focused on a display called "Positive Vibrations."

"Look at me." he continued in a passionate voice, "I'm 59 years old, I dropped out of school and had no interest in finishing, now for the 1st time she has me thinking about getting GED."

"And you know what John?” He lowered his voice, "She doesn't even preach to us. All of us guys talk about it in our cells, Is none of my business why she is leaving, I guess she really has to go for a promotion where she gets more money. We truly are going to miss her."

Moved, but somewhat embarrassed by this tribute, I quickly intervened as he paused. "Thank you. No one could say a nicer thing to me on my last day."

They left the library. I went to pack the remaining personal items, removed my posters from the wall, closing a chapter on 7 years of being a librarian in penal institutions.

Did I say close? That will never be. Stories, incidents, challenges, laughs, inspiration, accomplishments, will be vibrant and colorful parts of my memories as a prison librarian. I sat in the quiet of the now empty library and reflected on how I came to work in a prison.

My advent into prison librarianship was income related. I needed to supplement my public library associate's pay, and the correctional facility had a part-time position that accommodated my public library schedule. Two evenings each week I placed books on a cart and took them to the cells of prisoners who were waiting relocation to a longer term prison facility.

One year later, I accepted a full time position to work in the penitentiary library, next door. The increased salary quelled my apprehension about giving up my full time public library job to work in a prison.

On my first day in the maximum security prison, nothing prepared me for the jarring sound of the iron gate which clanged shut as I entered one area, stood in a confined spot waiting for a correctional officer to check my credentials and destination. Three iron gates later, another staff patted me down and searched my belongings to ensure that I had no contraband.

Inside the dismal library that had been closed for 18 months, I looked at the room full of boxes, the empty shelves, the inmate clerks standing around, thought of the prison administration anxious to have the library opened, and I felt like retracing my steps. The reality of my monthly bills kept my feet rooted.

Thus began prison education. I encountered well dressed inmates who spoke with such authority I thought they were staff, sycophantic inmates who hoped to get in my good graces, and inmates whose eyes followed me everywhere -appraising. It was all new and I had no clue how to begin but instinctively realized I must immediately establish that I was in charge.

I set up teams of inmate workers, artists, sign makers, technical, information, and circulation clerks, learned to modify, readjust, change schedules, and clerks as I became aware of the prison culture - the tensions between European Americans and those of African heritage, the dynamics of the strong and weak inmates, and that of the prisoner versus staff.

Since prison culture prohibits inmates “snitching” on one another, when information came my way, I handled it with the utmost discretion to protect the informant. I was often the final arbiter in potential disputes, to reduce those actions that defined toughness in a prison. As the one person manager, I constantly interacted with the same inmates who come to the library seeking solution to variety information needs. When they came seeking directory information, medical information, and information pertaining to their incarceration, I learned about their children, custody and divorce issues, family situations, and the difficulties they encountered in their daily life as prisoners.

I learned to be frank, firm, fair, but compassionate. The prison inmate grapevine reported that my willingness to go the extra mile to find the information they needed, earned me their respect.

I learned that inmates had the same information needs as citizens outside. Their distrust of the medical services and prescriptions they received, made Physicians Desk Reference and other medical information in high demand, as was the legal reference materials. Some of the inmates also used our reference materials to help children and family members with school and college assignments. Materials on self-help and self improvement, on relationships, and on psychology, drawing, business plans were sought constantly. The high demand materials were the ones likely to be stolen, so I learned to take extra measures to secure these materials.

While popular reading interests were the same as in public libraries, there was more interest in non fiction titles that focused on self improvement.

I stayed four years in the maximum security prison, then went back to my former public library as an outreach librarian, to set up a library in the local detention center.

I conducted a needs assessment that showed a significant difference between the prison and detention center environments. In the latter, residents stayed from 1 day to 18 months and had higher educational accomplishments - most completing high and some with college degrees or some college courses. Many of the residents were probation violators, interstate detainees, substance abusers. They wanted self esteem materials, dealing with relationships, career options, resume writing, job hunting techniques, continuing education, and skills, overcoming substance abuse.

They read voraciously and definitely challenged my readers advisory skills. Because they were younger inmates, they were more inquisitive and they tried to test my mettle. I provided books to settle such cell disputes as, Can an alligator run faster than a man?, or remained calm when they asked questions that they think would rattle the librarian.

For example, an inmate loudly asked, to the laughter of those listening, if I had books on devil worship or witchcraft. Calmly I did the reference interview, said the library had nothing in the collection, but I would try to get it on loan from the public library. The next week he was clearly surprised but pleased when I lent him two related books. Two visits later, when no one was around, he quietly asked me for something positive and uplifting, because he said, all his life he was surrounded by negative situations. I gave him Makes Me Wanna holler, and Second Chance. He said he appreciated the books, because the situations described his life. Then he asked for GED books.

Inmates who were satisfied with the library service, talked about it in their cells and brought others to the library. When they returned books, I would question them about what they read. They willingly told me plots and what they liked about the book. I would use their comments to recommend those titles to others. They felt good about this.

The sound of voices indicating a shift change broke from my reverie. I gathered my bags, closed the library door, waited at each gate as the officer who opened it, wished me good luck. At the final gate, I waved to the officer in the control room as the door slowly grinded shut behind me.

Post Script. Fast forward to 2005. I am back in the prison system, as Library Coordinator.

--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/.