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Prison Libraries Help Inmates Get Over The Fence: Reducing Barriers to Reentry

By Glennor Shirley, Library Coordinator, Correctional Education Libraries, Maryland State Department of Education.

Over 2 million prisoners are housed in U.S. state prisons, federal prisons, and detention centers.  At some point, 95% of state prisoners will return to the community, becoming part of approximately 5 million adult men and women who come from the criminal justice system, either as parolees or probationers.  Prisoners are parents to approximately 1.5 million children under age 18.

A Three State Recidivism Study on the impact of education while incarcerated concluded that the drop in recidivism among prisoners participating in educational programs resulted in “returns at least $2 for every $1 spent in terms of saving in cell space on those who do not return to the system.”

In view of the importance of education for a successful reentry, how do prison libraries proactively contribute to the education of the inmates as they prepare to return to society?

Prison libraries can develop collections that include a broad range of materials for self-help, self-education, community resources, housing and job availability, and vocational training opportunities. Content should include information on:

  • Obtaining or restoring credit
  • Writing resumes and  cover letters
  • Explaining the gap in employment status
  • Interviewing for jobs
  • Federal Bonding, a program by the U.S. Deptartment of Labor that serves as incentive for employers to hire ex-offenders and others with risk factors in their background
  • Getting  licensing information
  • Sources and requirements for obtaining funds to start up businesses
  • Substance abuse and health centers
  • Agencies and  shelters for the homeless
  • Trade skills, such as construction,  motor mechanics, or cosmetology
  • Communication and interpersonal relationships
  • Family relationships and parenting

In Maryland, our Correctional Educational Libraries work collaboratively with the Transition Coordinator, setting up a career center in a section of the library in our medium- and minimum-security prisons.  Although the materials and equipment in the career center are the responsibility of the Transition Coordinator, the librarian oversees the day-to-day operations.  Another example of how libraries work alongside the Transition program is the library’s contribution at the annual career fair for inmates who are on the verge of leaving prison: Prison administrators do not normally allow inmates access to the Internet, but for the career fair, the librarian gets special permission to use a laptop with Internet access and can then demonstrate how the Internet is used to find information about jobs, housing, GED, and other community resources.  In several cases, this demonstration was the first time inmates saw how the Internet works.

Because many inmates will return to their communities without any financial means and are unlikely to have computers in their homes, librarians remind inmates that they can visit their local public library to use computers and find required information.  To reinforce the public library’s importance, we have invited public librarians to talk with prison librarians about their resources for ex-offenders, and to participate in one of our career fairs.

In our Libraries we designate a section as "Library Resources for Life on the Outside," which has information on the topics that are relevant for reentry.  We also produced a bookmark listing some of the materials on the shelves. Below are the titles on our bookmarks:

Library Resources for Life on the Outside
Finding a Job. . .
Bermont, Todd.  10 Insider Secrets to a Winning Job Search.
Block, Jay.  101 Best Cover Letters.
Farr, Michael.  America's Top Jobs for People without a Four-Year Degree.
Farr, Michael.  Best Jobs for the 21st Century.
Figler, Howard.  The Complete Job Search Handbook.
Fry, Ronald.  101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions.
Gale, Linda.  Discover What You’re Best At.
Kennedy, Joyce.  Job Interviews for Dummies.
Messmer, Max.  Job Hunting for Dummies.
Nadler, Burton Jay.  The Everything Resume Book.
Parker, Yana.  Damn Good Resume Guide.
Pincus, Marilyn.  Interview Strategies that Lead to Job Offers.
Prasad, Chandra.  Outwitting the Job Market.
Veruki, Peter.  250 Job Interview Questions You’ll Most Likely Be Asked.
Washington, Tom. Interview Power:  Selling Yourself Face to Face.
Yate, Martin.  Resumes that Knock ‘em Dead.

Your Money. . .
Bierman, Todd. The Fix Your Credit Workbook.
Chatzky, Jean.  Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day.
Tucker, Sheryl. The New Money Book of Personal Finance.
Tyson, Eric.  Personal Finance for Dummies.

Personal Change. . .
Anderson, Walter.  The Confidence Course.
Ball, Carolyn.  Claiming Your Self-Esteem.
Beattie, Melody.  Co-Dependent No More.
Brounstein, Marty.  Communicating Effectively for Dummies.
Davidson, Jeffrey.  Complete Idiot’s Guide to Assertiveness.
Glickman, Rosalene.  Optimal Thinking.
Greenberger, Dennis. Mind over Mood.
Kuriansky, Judy.  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Healthy Relationship.
Niven, David.  The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People.
Robbins, Anthony.  Unlimited Power: A Black Choice.
Toropov, Brandon.  Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting along with Difficut People.
Prochaska, James O.  Changing for Good.

The Maryland Correctional Libraries website includes a section devoted to reentry.  This helps the librarian identify sites as well as act as guide to anyone with access to the Internet.

--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/.

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