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


Has Your Public Librarian Been to Prison? (part 1)

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

This was the title of the workshops sponsored by the Prisoners Forum, at the last annual Conference of the American Library Association, in Orlando. The workshop highlighted programs and collaborative efforts between public and prison libraries.

Most prison librarians operate as one person managers responsible for readers advisory, reference interviews, collection development – weeding, orders, processing, programming, internet searches, computer troubleshooting, sorting and answering mail, providing answers to in- person and written requests, initiating documentation to enable equipment maintenance staff to enter the institution, preparing the required paperwork to enable inmate daily access to the library, listening to, and offering solutions for the any problems that the inmates pose.

With limited budgets and very little time to do innovative programs, prison librarians derive great benefits from Collaborative efforts with public or other libraries in the community.

In response to my email enquiring about collaborative work with prisons, I received good feedback. There was only one negative comment where the librarian stated, “The local library has made it clear that they want nothing to do with the prison… Not to sound like I do not get any support from the community. The library does receive donations from two local used bookstores and a high school in a neighboring town. They can use the donation for tax purposes. I have never had any contact with other public libraries in neighboring towns.”

Below are excerpts of the positive responses from some of the libraries.

* All of the Minnesota facilities participate in an interlibrary loan program using the county libraries nearest to them. They establish an institutional card for the facility and have one or more users on record - usually the librarian and a teacher or other educational staff member. This allows the prison to provide many materials that would otherwise be inaccessible to the inmate. This does not cost the facility or the outside library any extra funding (except when materials are lost or stolen). Most of the MCF-librarians have good working relations with their public library and there are benefits for both programs.

* The Read-To-Me Program. The Indiana State Library provides picture books and readers for children ages 10 and under to adult prisons. We work with the library staff (who often work with the education staff) to select and encourage men and women to select a title, learn to read it well then they produce an audio tape of the book for their child, grandchild, sibling, niece, nephew, steps, or other relatives. The library personnel return the book and tape to me with a forwarding address to send it on to the child. I include a letter from the State Library that indicates our collaboration on the project and the State Library mails them out.

* The Texas State Library and Archives Commission manages a grant-funded program, TexNet Interlibrary Loan Centers that provides interlibrary loan services throughout the state of Texas. In addition, several of the TexNet Centers provide interlibrary loan services to prison libraries. This has been a successful program with only a few minor problems when occasionally books are not returned.

* All of our facilities participate in the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) program whereby eligible inmates can register their children, stepchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. to receive 3 free books sent out over a 3-month time-period. This program is funded 3/4 by the government and 1/4 by the Department of Correction. I think there were over 3000 children served this last year.

* In Fall 2003, Austin Public Library began to work with Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center. The idea of the Second Chance Books project is to provide young people who are in trouble—who need a second chance—with the opportunity to read for pleasure and to learn about library resources. At the same time we could give books from the library’s collection a “second chance” to be read before being withdrawn.

* Maryland Correctional Education Libraries (MCEL) has implemented a Family Literacy@ Your prison Library program where the children’s librarian from the Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) taught prisoners how to select children’s books, and read to children. Periodically the public librarian conducts children’s story hours with the inmates, children, and caregivers. The program takes place once per month in the prison’s visiting room.

MCEL also works with the State Library Resource Center (SLRC) located at the EPFL. Part of the orientation of any new librarian to our prison system, is to spend approximately 2 days working in various departments of the EPFL. Because some of our new hires come from Media specialist or special library background, working in the public library gives them an orientation to public library service. SLRC has been very receptive to our request to be part of our orientation for new recruits. SLRC periodically conducts their own training workshops and tours, and our librarians have participated in these workshops for free. Maryland prisons libraries also participates in the interlibrary loan system which comes under SLRC.

Our next issue will feature a detailed report from the Austin Public Library and its second Chance Books.

--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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