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


Prison Libraries and the Internet

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

The latest Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that there are over 2 million prisoners in Federal, state prisons and jails, and that at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released to parole supervision.  In 2001, 592,000 prisoners were released to the community after serving time in prison. [i] When ex offenders return to society, they face the digital divide because while incarcerated, they have no access to the Internet.  Someone who has been incarcerated for over 15 years has had no opportunity to use the Internet and thus his or her knowledge is limited to exaggerated concepts of what it is all about, or complete ignorance of its possibilities.  If this inmate has not enrolled in the educational, vocational, or career employment programs he or she is not likely to have ever used computers.

In a recent survey of prison libraries reference collection, many librarians said their libraries had no computers.  In institutions with computers that were accessible to inmates, they contained programs with educational and or legal content, and a few had games like Scrabble. [ii]   In some states like Maryland, where librarians had a computer with Internet access, there were stringent rules governing use. Some rules included:  The Internet computer must be located in areas inaccessible to inmates, librarians should use an external modem that is locked away, and the Internet is not be used in the presence of inmates. Implication for the librarians include: Having to personally find the information for the inmate; time delay before the information is available; employing very good reference interview skills since an incorrect interpretation of requests means repeating the exercise; requests must be written and a record kept as a safeguard against future grievances; it is extra work for the one person library manager.

Ex offenders needs information on getting a job, career opportunities, housing, establishing credit, pursuing GED, addresses of community resources like substance abuse centers and homeless shelters, getting a Social Security number, identifying funds to start their own businesses, writing business plans, financial aid, and reestablishing family relationships.  Much of this information is available on the Internet, but the inmate who has never used the Internet, is unaware how to access it for his information needs.  Prior to incarceration many prisoners never visited their local public libraries therefore it is unlikely that as ex offenders they will consider this resource.

To help bridge the digital divide and create awareness of the public libraries collections, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, using an LSTA grant, developed a CD ROM, Discovering the Internet@ Your Library, a tutorial to help inmates understand the Internet.  This interactive CD ROM promotes the public library as a place that provides access to the Internet as well as to the kinds of information that will help in the transition back to the community.  The CD ROM highlights Internet sites for housing, online GED practice test, job and career sites, community resources, rental and other housing information, and web addresses of local public officials.  To reduce the intimidation for the inmate who has reading difficulty, the CD ROM, instead of pure text, uses a narrator to describe search strategies.  The narration on the CD-ROM begins, “When you return to your community, you can visit your local public library to get access to the Internet to help you search for jobs, housing, or even to use computers to write your resumes or to develop fliers for your business.”  The narrator explains basic Internet terms like “ search engine”, “web address”, and the meaning of the hourglass. The CD ROM identifies specific libraries and agencies in Maryland, but anyone in any state without knowledge of the Internet can benefit from the tutorial, which lasts about forty-five minutes.

Since its development Maryland Correctional Education libraries has received many requests for the CD-ROM from adult and juvenile correctional facilities across the country.  Although it is copyrighted to Maryland State Department of Education, copies have been made available the only cost being for postage and for making the copy.

In Maryland, as an incentive, inmates who complete the tutorial and a CD ROM use- survey, receive a certificate.  Those of us who work in the prison system know that inmates love to get certificate because they use it as evidence of positive accomplishment during Parole hearings.

For questions about the CD-Rom please email Glennor Shirley at gshirley@msde.state.md.us.

[i] Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm
[ii] Questionnaire to prison librarians in 2003 by Glennor Shirley

--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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