Volume 25, Number 3, 2003

Three Experts Describe "How to be a Successful Prison Librarian: Preparation for a Foreign Land"

by Julia Schneider, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility

Three prison librarians presented tips for being a successful prison librarian, during the “How to Be a Prison Librarian: Preparation for a Foreign Land” program sponsored by the Library Services to Prisoners Forum at the ALA conference in Toronto.

Part way through her presentation, Vibeke Lehmann, Library Services and Education Technology Consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, posed a leading question. "How do you encourage independent reading," she asked, " when everything else in the inmate's life discourages autonomy?" She and the other presenters did not provide a definitive answer to that question, but they did go a long way towards suggesting the sort of person who would try.

Vibeke Lehmann: The Right to Read

"Prison is an inhospitable environment that challenges all you have learned at library school," said Lehmann. Safety and security are given a higher priority than intellectual freedom, resources can be difficult to find, and the clientele can be very difficult. Mental illness, including alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, are rife among one's users, a high rate of illiteracy is a given, and minorities outnumber others in the mainly male population. "These individuals have a high rate of unmet needs, which is exacerbated by separation from their family," Lehmann added.

Up until the 1970's, she said, the prevailing philosophy was that one could rehabilitate inmates by telling them what to do. The 70s changed all that with the growing acknowledgment that prisoners have rights, including the right to read. With the current incarceration rate in the U.S. reaching two million in federal, state and jail lockups, that model has proved a very expensive one to follow; programs, including the prison library, are very costly to maintain.

For those in prison, "doing time" can be very hard, unless they have something to occupy their time. This need to find an escape makes the prison library a premier attraction, along with the law research services it provides. "Books form an escape, the only possible escape, from an oppressive environment; the prison library is an oasis where things are as normal as they can get in prison," Lehmann said.

Statistics reflect this reality. In Wisconsin, circulation averages from 50-60 items per person per year, and 70 percent of the inmate population uses the library. The limitation of the library collection dictates a high use of interlibrary loan, with many prison libraries forming links with a state or other library.

Lehmann, who is actively involved in library outreach and recruitment, said that those who enter the prison as librarians are often ill-prepared for what they find inside. Isolation, burnout, and the development of a "them versus us" mentality loom as ever present dangers. Though the library is perhaps the safest place to work in the prison, one cannot risk becoming too friendly with the inmates, and the stress of providing services to those who are so needy can get to the most idealistic librarians.

In addition to a broad academic background and a wide knowledge of resources, Lehmann said that one needs to develop a knowledge of prison dynamics—often on the job—to be a successful prison librarian. That, along with an ability to work with ambiguity, to adapt with ease, and to maintain frankness, sincerity and a sense of humor, were some of the essential personality traits she mentioned. "If you don't want to help people, you're in the wrong profession," she noted, while stressing the need to leave work at the workplace at day's end.

Naomi Angier: YA Training Made to Order

Like many recruits to this environment, Naomi Angier didn't set out to be a juvenile detention librarian. When the opportunity arose, however, she found that her background as a school librarian and young adult specialist was made to order for her job at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center in Multnomah County, Oregon.

Angier's clients are youths aged 12 to 18, and they number from 100 to 170 at a time. From 1980 to 1996, the library that served them at the Center was built up from materials discarded from other libraries. In 1997 a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant changed that, allowing for the development of a more well-balanced collection.

During the day, the youths attend school full-time and Angier gives book talks and discussions. She also hosts a summer reading program in which Richard Rodriguez' Always Running, about gang warfare, and Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying have proved big hits.

Angier said that it took a little while to gain credibility and acceptance with the other staff. “You have to follow the rules,” she said.

“Training in prison culture would have been helpful,” she said, but quickly added, “The Center doesn't have the intense atmosphere of an adult prison.”

She also said that it has been helpful to have a very specific book selection policy and a review committee and procedure. Though Stephen King is acceptable, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim have had to go, due to their negative attitudes and influence on young charges.

Of her client group, Angier said, “I don't think of them as prisoners, I think of them as kidsï¿Ã‚½This is my favorite job because the kids really love me ï¿Ã‚½ because they have nothing else to do!”

Ann Curry: Intellectual Freedom for Canadian Prisoners

Canadian presenter Dr. Ann Curry, University of British Columbia, approached the subject of prison librarianship from a different angle, as well as from a different side of the border. A leading advocate for intellectual freedom, she said her interest in the field was piqued by listening to one caller on a nationwide phone-in program. This woman spoke of how a prison had sent back a book she had written and sent to her brother, who was incarcerated there, as contravening prison policy.

Two years ago, she embarked upon a comprehensive survey of Canadian prison librarians with the help of three MLIS students. They sent a questionnaire to the libraries of all 51 Canadian national penal institutions; her report was based on the findings of this project.

Dr. Curry provided some background to prison libraries and their history. She said such libraries have existed in Britain since 1699 and in Canada since the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1869, at the Kingston Penitentiary, which Charles Dickens visited on his North American tour, "good conduct" prisoners could engage in a little bedside travelling by borrowing a coal oil lamp to use for reading in their rooms until 9 p.m.

The role of reading in prison is a controversial one. Dr. Curry quoted from former UWO professor Janet Fyfe to illustrate this point. In her book Books Behind Bars: The Role of Books, Reading and Libraries in British Penal Reform 1701-1911, Dr. Fyfe wrote: “The greater the commitment to deprivation of liberty, the tougher the censorship; the more the prison was seen as an apparatus for transforming individuals, the more control was likely to be exercised as to prisoners' reading as part of that apparatus, unless reading was itself recognized as having transforming power.” Dr. Curry spoke of some fundamental differences between Canadian and U.S. prisons. In the U.S., most prisoners are held in state institutions, with only those convicted of federal offenses sent to federal lock-ups. In Canada, on the other hand, all sentences of more than two years are served in the national penal system, and the numbers are much smaller. The incarceration rate in Canada is 118 per 100,000, as compared to 6,000 per 100,000 in the U.S.

In Canada, the administration of the national system is divided into five regions, each of which has considerable autonomy: numbers, again, are far smaller in Canada than in its neighbor to the south. In the state of California alone, there are more than 30 prisons, some of which hold over 6,000 inmates, whereas in Canada there are 51 with 600 considered a large population.

Along with smaller-is-better, however, Dr. Curry gave many instances of smaller-is-worse. Salaries and educational requirements of those working in Canadian prisons are lower, with only eight percent of workers holding a MLIS degree. Book budgets are small and sometimes virtually nonexistent, and the training of staff and information given them is poor and second-hand. Even though there are operational procedures in place, many workers are unaware of them. In some cases library workers have no awareness of ILL or collection development and appeal procedures.

Canadian prisons have all the problems of America's, if on a smaller scale, but they seem to have fewer resources to provide them with help. Dr. Curry made the point that “Staff are weary of the constant public relations battle to obtain recognition of the educational and psychological roles their libraries play. There is no environment where the need is greater and the commitment less.” The result is “subsistence librarianship,” a high level of frustration, and a lot of burn-out. Those working in libraries would like to help prisoners but lack the resources, training, and support to do very much.

Those who want to read more of Dr. Curry's report can do so by looking in the Fall 2003 issue of the Journal of Librarianship and Technology or by accessing the “Research” section at www.slais.ubc.ca.