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


Prison Libraries and Cultural Diversity

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

"Cultural diversity in libraries is exhibited through services, programs, and collections. Many people feel that to have culturally diverse libraries, the ethnic makeup of the staff should be representative in the communities they serve."

Using Sarah Long’s definition of cultural diversity, in 2002 I sent questionnaires to 110 prison librarians nationwide to assess cultural diversity in the libraries. Responses from 35 librarians indicated that financial constraints and institutional security were the main impediments to multicultural services, programs, and collections.

Demographics: From the returned survey, the prisoners were, 43% European American, 33% African American, 19% Latino, 3% Native American, 2% Asian. Of the prison Librarians who identified their race, 24 were European American, 3 Latinos, 3 Asians, and 1 African American.

The question was whether collections reflected popular and ethnic interest of non-English speaking, African American, Native American, gay, lesbian, bi sexual, and transgender inmates. Responses varied among states and among institutions within the same states. Many librarians said they provided materials that reflect ethnic interests, but services and materials were often hampered by lack of funds. Others said they were subjected to content restrictions imposed by their institutional security. One librarian commented, "The library tried to purchase good books and not trash literature like Donald Goines, though he is a popular author around here." (Goines is popular among African Americans in every prison across the nation). No librarian mentioned collection based on sexual orientation.

Language: Many librarians did not have the language to communicate with non-English speaking inmates and relied on bilingual inmates for communication between librarian and inmate.

Programs: Most libraries had no programs but librarians said they tried to reflect diversity in the collection. Some institutions discouraged cultural programs, as they feared this would result in problems among the various ethnic groups.

Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries and diversity

Recognizing the need for service to the increasingly diverse prison population, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries used LSTA funds, administered by The Division of Library Development and Services, to address cultural diversity.

The Inmate characteristics chart of Maryland Dept. of Public Safety identified over 23,000 inmates classified as 77% black, 22% white, and 1% "other". Since there was no separate category for the increasing number of Latino inmates, it appears they were identified by race in each of the above category. However, discussions with the immigrant population indicated that inmates from South and Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean did not identify themselves as African Americans or black. They identified themselves by their country of origin and wanted materials relevant to their culture.

Female inmates numbered slightly over 1,000.

We purchased and produced materials that included:

  • Spanish Legal dictionaries and popular materials in Spanish, computers with Spanish /English dictionaries on CD ROM, community resources in Spanish, Spanish translations of our Description fliers and the CD Rom "Discovering the Internet @ Your Library".
  • Dictionaries in a variety of languages for reference and circulation.
  • English Dictionaries on CD ROM.
  • Sign language materials for all institutions.
  • Close caption TV for 3 institutions with hearing impaired inmates.
  • Large print books for the institution with older inmates.
  • Materials with alternative lifestyles for 2 institutions.
  • Large numbers of fiction and non-fiction titles of interest to persons of African Heritage. This included books by and about African, and Caribbean writers.

After the collection was established, we observed that English-speaking inmates used many of the language materials because they wanted to learn a language to assist non-English speaking inmates. Inmates with no hearing, impairments constantly checked out sign language books.

Education instructors introduced Latino inmates to the library and its new collection- a first time event for majority of these inmates. Librarians reported that once the inmates were made aware of the section, they headed for that area on subsequent visits.

Because majority of our inmates are of African heritage, there was and is constant demand for appropriate ethnic literature. These materials were constantly checked out and are also the books most likely to be stolen.

Overall the materials purchased to satisfy diversity needs in the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries were well appreciated and well used.

--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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