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


Has Your Public Librarian Been to Prison? (Part 2)

By Jeanette Larson, Youth Services Manager, Austin Public Library.

Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center
Second Chance Books: Bringing Literature to Incarcerated Kids

A report from The Youth Services Department of the Austin Public Library in Texas.

Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center (GBJJC) is a short-term residential facility with approximately 50-120 youths ages ten - seventeen years. Detainees stay for approx. 10-12 days, although some are detained up to six months while they await adjudication.

In Fall 2003, Austin Public Library initiated Second Chance, a project to provide detainees with the opportunity to read and to learn about library resources. The library’s collection would get a “second chance” to be read before being withdrawn. The project entailed: establishing an on-site deposit collection of high interest popular books from the Library’s collection, promoting reading through book talks, registering incarcerated kids for free library cards, and providing programs.

Twice monthly, three library staff visit GBJJC, taking a selection of books that they discuss with 4 groups groups of 10-20 juveniles. The project enabled library staff to improve services to a difficult- to- reach segment of the community. Many students said that prior to this, they did not read at all. Now they read 6 or more books during their stay, and said they plan to use the public library upon release.

In 2004, over 200 incarcerated students received new library cards. Programs have included authors, illustrators, martial arts experts, and a storyteller.

Letters from some of the youths at GBJJC best demonstrate the achievements of this project. (Grammar and spelling are as written by the kids with clarification in brackets, if necessary.)

  • I had never read a book until I came in to detention. … I read Monster by Walter Dean Myers and I couldn’t put it down. So it was that I found myself doing it all the time and I couldn’t put it down. … I would not have things on my mind all the time, instead I was reading so I also thinck I made me find me and who I relly am you know.
  • I was very depressed and [the librarian] smiled and then she put the book that she was going to tell us about and picked up another one and from that moment on I knew that if a librarian saw pintual [potential] in me that read[ing] was good.
  • I never read books while at the house. I was always outside hanging with friends getting into trouble. Since being in Gardner Betts, I now read everyday and I also have received a library card. … Now I read books and don’t get into trouble.
  • How the library has helped me is by me reading and not being able to stop. The first time I came here is when it became my first time to read a book. It’s been a tragedy to me coming back to juvenile but the only thing that is good is that now I love reading more than ever.
  • The library has helped me a lot. And the reason why I say that is because when I was going to school out their in the free [world] you know I would never pay attention to none of my reading books. … And now that I started reading my level has picked up … whenever I used to read out loud I would always be coming to a point where I did not know a word and now that I know how to read better its like I never had that problem.

Costs are minimal, approximately ten hours a month preparing for the book talks, programs and events, and sorting and selecting books for the collection. An initial grant of $500 from the Tocker Foundation was used to purchase shelving and some books. Program costs ranged from $50 to $200 per program, some, for example, Walter Dean Myers, were free.

What began, as a small pilot project to reach kids who needed library services, has grown. rapidly and, after 18 months, has moved from pilot project to an institutionalized service within both Gardner Betts Juvenile Center and Austin Public Library.

--Jeanette Larson is Youth Services Manager, Austin Public Library www.cityofaustin.org/library.