Volume 26, Number 4, Winter 2004


Has Your Public Librarian Been in Prison?

Report from the Library Services to Prisoners Forum

by Julia Schneider, Salt Lake County Library System

Has YOUR public librarian been in prison? If not, he/she may be missing out on a great opportunity. Or so one could infer from the presentation at this year’s Library Services To Prisoners’ Forum, as librarians from six states told about their experiences in the slammer and what keeps them going back.

All had found a niche and worked on it. From the West Coast, Jere White, Library Coordinator to Jails in Oregon’s Multnomah County Library, talked about the special problems he encountered in his quest to combat poverty and to create job readiness and drug awareness in the three facilities he oversees. These hold 1,800 prisoners with an annual turnover of 23,000, which he said is a problem in itself. Unlike prisons, where the population is relatively stable, inmates come and go from jails, making services a difficult proposition to a group in flux.

White said that the most important thing to do is to get “buy-in” from the Sheriff’s Department for education and literary efforts. The Books Without Barriers program he talked about during his presentation was borrowed from other states and has been adapted for many others. It centers around having parents read to their kids. In the Multnomah County jails, participants in the program are videotaped reading stories and the tapes are then sent to their children; the program has the support of the institutions involved.

White showed three emotionally charged and affecting tapes of parents reading to their children. In some cases, White said, “The only book the inmate had ever read was in prison.” He said that so far fifty-seven parents have gone through the Reach Out and Read program, and that interest outstrips potential for delivery.

Next up, Glennor Shirley, Library Coordinator at the Maryland State Dept. of Education, Correctional Education Libraries Division, who convened the program and is the incoming Chair of LSPF, spoke about Maryland’s approach to literacy in its No Child Left Behind Bars program. She introduced Selma Levi, Supervisor of the Children’s Department at the Enoch Pratt Library, a storyteller who said, “You can’t ever imagine what it is like to be in prison until that door clangs behind you.”

Despite the intimidating environment, however, Levi said she was impressed by the reception she got from the inmates in the maximum-security units she visited. “Men were bending over backwards for me; men were concerned about [my sitting on] the concrete floor, so they brought a blanket for me to sit on.”

Levi said she also was surprised to find the warden at the women’s prison she visited was much stricter than the warden at the men’s. Her intention in both, she said, was “to demystify the skill of storytelling, and to teach the inmates how to tell a story.”

She chose stories based on their tellability, multicultural focus and moral content, and said the only stories inmates seemed to have read before were Where the Wild Things Are and Harry The Dirty Dog.

Following Levi came Betsey Diamante-Cohen, a Children’s Specialist from Enoch Pratt Library.

While Levi had focused on adult learners, Diamante-Cohen’s special interest was parents of babies under two years and she incorporated much research about brain development at that age into her approach. She exposed her sixty male inmates in a maximum-security facility to such stimulating activities as reading Mother Goose on the Loose, while trying to keep in mind that “the most important thing for future learning ï¿Ã‚½ is a warm, caring, secure environment.”

Though creating such an environment in the prison setting proved difficult at times, Diamante-Cohen told about breaking down barriers through positive reinforcement, mnemonic devices, and use of such catchy rhymes as her rendition of Dickey Birds—which, incidentally, captivated the Monday morning crowd just as it had the inmates.

Diamante-Cohen said she was surprised to discover that many of the concepts she used were completely unknown to her inmate students, as was the importance of childhood learning.

LaToya McLean, of the Charlotte/Mecklenberg Public Library in North Carolina, talked about taking a book reading program based on the public library model and making it into a bi-weekly therapy and empowerment group in prison. Participants read the same books as those in the public setting, but became totally involved. McLean said that after interacting with authors like Donna Hill, a very popular Afro-American author from Queens Library, “the ladies wanted to write ï¿Ã‚½ and I can’t tell you how much they wrote!” Kathy McLellan from the Johnson County (KS) Library said that, in her view, “If you really wanted to change your life, this is the place to go,” and that, in the jail, “I feel I’m in the safest place in the city right now.” She outlined the tremendously popular programs for teens in detention and teens at risk and on probation which she has implemented and said how gratifying the outcomes of these programs were.

Books in the Changing Lives Through Literature Program were chosen for their relevance to the group, and for their potential to raise awareness of such social and developmental issues as snitching, bullying, and sex. Among the featured authors were T. C. Boyle, Lois Lowry and Ben Mikaelson; McLellan handed out bibliographies with all the books involved, and with suggested reading for those working at detention centers as well.

Unlike television, which is neither rehabilitative nor interventionist, reading involves reflection and response. McLellan said that the inmates in the program responded to its structure, high expectations and commitment: GED scores rose, people were asking for thesauri, and “poetry became a very big thing at the jail.”

Finally, I spoke about the jail branch of the system and its work. “What do you want to know about a jail library?” she asked.

“First," I continued, "that a jail is not a place you’d ever want to be, but second, if you are, the library may be the one thing that helps you keep your sanity and even start to turn your life around.”

Like White, I said that it is more difficult to provide services in the jail environment than in prison, due to the transient nature of the population. But while the 2,000-plus inmates at Salt Lake County’s Adult Detention Center are theoretically there only until sentenced, many in fact end up staying for much longer, more than three years, with little to occupy their time. In this context, the library becomes a mental health as well as a recreational program, and administrators see it as one of the primary “management tools” at their disposal. Inmates themselves say they do not know how they’d keep their sanity without some books to read.

Inmates in the ADC can have six books in their cell at a time and all books are delivered to the thirty-two small units by the four part-time and one full-time staff members. Deliveries are done on a rotational basis, and the library circulates somewhere between ten thousand and fiftenn thousand books a month. The only complaint from the inmates is about slow service; they do not mind that some of the books had been read sixty times before they ever see them.

As with Multnomah County, the support of the Sheriff’s Office is critical to the development and health of the Salt Lake County Jail Library. Though at one time there was resistance to the program, the influence of the current Sheriff and Chief, both of whom are readers, has proved invaluable in getting things done at the jail. They fund part of the salaries of staff, while the County Library provides the rest of staff expenses, a very healthy book budget and other kinds of support for this not-always-visible branch in its system. The collection mirrors those in the libraries on the outside, except that all the books are paperbacks, and there may be a bit more interest in horror—and true crime!—than in the regular branches.

At the end of the session, audience members went away with lots of resource materials and things to think about, and a few may even have been considering the possibilities in going to jail themselves!

For more information, contact Julia Schneider.