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


Bookmobiles on Parade: Visit from an Exoffender

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

In April 07, I took possession of the first prison library bookmobile in the nation. This bookmobile was designed specifically as a transitional information services unit for inmates who were on prerelease status in Maryland’s prisons, and who would return to the community in less than 1 year.

In June, we had not yet hired a bookmobile librarian, nor developed an adequate collection, but decided to participate in the Bookmobiles on Parade at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington D.C.

Our technology manager, Beverly Bowles, ever ready for a challenge, agreed to drive the bookmobile in the parade. On June 26, 2007, our bookmobile, displaying the logo of our partners, Maryland State Department of Education, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), and Maryland Correction Enterprise, and Correctional Education, joined nine other bookmobiles as they paraded around the Washington Convention Center. We later parked at Franklin Square and posted signs inviting passersby to visit inside.

By midday the temperature soared. To keep the vehicle cool, we periodically opened and closed the door, but always looked out for potential visitors. Two of our prison librarians took a break from the exhibits in the convention center and sat in the van. I went outside, sat on a nearby park bench facing the mobile unit, and saw a man approach the unit. His eyes were fixed on the public safety logo, his fingers almost tracing the letters. He turned to move away, but I went up to him saying, “Please go in”. He looked at me as I opened the door, hesitated, and then climbed the steps with a laugh, saying something like, “I spend enough time in prison I don’t want to get caught in these things again.” I assured him we were librarians who worked in prisons and we were showing off our new van designed specifically to provide to inmates with information they need to make a more successful transition back to their communities.

He still looked uncomfortable so I quickly pointed out the computers, the smart board, the books on trade, self esteem, starting your own businesses, GED, and also the many community directories.

“Which prison were you in?” I asked. He laughed and said he was in all of them, Virginia, Maryland, and the District. “But,” he added, “I have been out for a few years now, and I have a good job. I learned a trade and am now working in refrigeration. I can fix any cooling system on refrigerators and houses, and I am now going straight.”

He relaxed his stance, leaned towards the bookshelf, picked up a book titled: Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationship and Express Yourself Without Losing Control. He picked up another book with a title about believing in self. He tapped the subtitle. “You see this that was my problem. I did not believe in myself. I did not feel like I was good enough, I could not understand why my wife was still sticking with me. She came from a good family and did not have to put up with me. In prison they pointed out a lot of things to me and one day I looked at myself in the mirror and cried. I decided I did not want to remain as I was. I began to believe in myself.” He became quiet, reflective. We too remained silent.

Then I said, “It’s great. to hear you say you are now going straight. As prison librarians we are trying to help soon-to-be released inmates by providing them with information that will help them so they can be as successful as you.” He nodded toward each of us and said, “Thank you for doing what you do. “I am 45 years old, and now I know how to look after and nurture my children. I’ve learned to talk with them kindly rather than being abusive. The two young ones are doing well in school.” He paused for a moment, moving his head up and down. With a smile on his face, his eyes swept around to the four of us. “Ladies, most of the time you may not see the benefits of what you are doing, but if you can save only one,” he pointed his index finger for emphasis, “it is worth it. Keep up the good work. Thank you ladies. Now I must go back to my buddies. I was only curious when I saw all these vehicles parked here.”

He descended the steps. I watched him walk towards his buddies. In the bookmobile we remained silent for a while, awed by this chance affirmation of our work as prison librarians, I felt exquisitely happy that I took the plunge and agreed to participate in Bookmobiles on Parade. Who knew that on Franklin Square in Washington, DC., our most important visitor would be a representative of the population we are trying to reach?

--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/.