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Reflections on Family Literacy @ a Prison Library

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

In March 2003, I introduced Family Literacy @ your Library at Maryland House of Corrections (MHC), a maximum-security male prison, to help the incarcerated men and their children use books and reading to develop positive interaction, and to help children improve academic performance.[i]

The primary focus of a prison is public safety and security.   This goal often conflicts with the service orientation of programs like Family Literacy so it is crucial to solicit and get the support and approval of prison officials before a program is implemented.

Programs are scrutinized for every detail that may be perceived as a breach of security. The fact that a program is approved is no guarantee that it will get implemented.   Prison authorities can withdraw permission at any time, citing security or personnel deployment concerns.  Program planning means constant negotiation about content, participants, location, and staffing resources. The prison administration approved and supported our program because we highlighted benefits as inmate’s improved behavior, improved reading skill, the chance to help a child, and positive community benefits.

Each program requires myriad paperwork for prior approval on interested inmates’ family members, materials, special guests, supplies, security, and security staff for the event.   For each event we depend on the cooperation of the security staff to let the inmates leave their cells, allow the children and caregivers into the institution, and to provide refreshments. Outsiders are not allowed to bring food into the institution.

Since our prison librarians provide services to adults and operate as one-person managers, they have little time for programming and little or no expertise in children’s literature. We asked and received help from the children’s staff at Howard County and Enoch Pratt Libraries. They trained inmate volunteer programmers on book selection, and story telling techniques. This was a new experience for the inmates, some of whom had never heard of Curious George before we began the program. The inmate volunteers rehearsed by reading to one another, and planning activities for the children.  Enoch Pratt Library provided us with a deposit collection of children’s books to supplement our selection of donated materials.

One Saturday each month for 2 hours, in the Visiting Room of MHC incarcerated males and their children read to one another.   This was a first for most of them.

After the 3rd session, I was moved to record the following personal impressions/observations:  “It couldn’t get any righter than this,” he said with a smile that I knew masked his keen disappointment.

Earlier I had asked how many of his children would attend the Family Literacy @ your Library event. “Two,” he replied, then quickly added, “But their mother has a lot of things to do, bills to pay, you know, so they may not even get here.”   I had seen it before.  These outwardly hardened prisoners eagerly waiting, but mentally preparing themselves in case their family did not show up.

I watched two pairs of eyes darting almost imperceptibly towards the entrance each time the grilled gate grinded open as the correctional officer escorted the children to the visiting room.   Smiles, hugs, and kisses followed.

Two men sat by themselves.   Their children had not shown up.  “Come join us,” I said.  “You’ll learn what to do when your children come.”  They joined in the hokey pokey, the word games, and the group reading sessions.  Ninety minutes sped by.  “Time to go.” I said when I saw the hovering security staff looking at their watches.

I turned to the father who had no child hugging him goodbye.  “Is this the kind of program you would want for your children?”  “Oh yes,” he shook his head emphatically, smiled and added.  “It couldn’t get any righter than this.”

The children waved from outside the grilled gate that now separated them from their parents.  The men watched waving and smiling until the gate clanged shut and their children were out of sight.  They turned their backs on the gate with the departing children, faced the door to their cells, replaced smiles with fierce expressions, and hunched their shoulders as they followed the officer who herded them to their cells.

Observing these flickering changes in emotions, I felt like a voyeur, but also felt glad that as a Librarian I had used books, reading, and family literacy to connect prisoners with their children for those brief moments.

[i] Many of the nation’s 1.5 million children who have a parent in prison live in areas where their schools score below performance standards.

--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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