Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2006


Vignettes from a Prison Librarian

by Glennor Shirley, Maryland State Department of Education Correctional Education Libraries

“'Correctional Libraries!' Do you actually work with the prisoners? It must be a challenge,” exhibitors exclaimed peering at my ALA Midwinter Meeting badge. I get similar reactions from librarians and citizens who bestow me with blessings for taking on this important job.

I often respond that I found working in a public library located near a school much more challenging than working in a prison library. Several former media specialist who now work as prison librarians affirm this. I also point out that most crimes occur on the streets, in malls, in homes, and in schools -- not in the prisons that have built-in security systems.

I explain that prisoners have the same information needs as nonincarcerated citizens, that the majority of them are from low socioeconomic environments, had little education and poor reading skills, and that prison libraries were in many cases their first library experience. Prison libraries provide materials for self-directed learning, formal educational pursuits, and for leisure reading.

In prisons -- unlike in the wider society -- individuals of different races, classes, educational background, nationalities, and religious beliefs have no choice but to coexist peacefully with one another. Their expectations of the library are as varied as their background. Librarians find it rewarding to earn trust from those who previously had no expectations.

While I could measure successes by providing statistics, I prefer the human aspects and share below, a few vignettes of my experiences.

  • One morning I answered the telephone to a desperate-sounding voice. The caller said he was on a pay phone, that he was a former inmate, who now had an opportunity to get a job, but as an ex-offender he needed to get bonded. Could I help with addresses where he could get bonded? He had tried several places and received no help. I had no idea what bonded meant, but knew I would not be another negative experience. I told him to hold on while I got the information and encouraged him to call back if we got cut off. Browsing through my directories I found a pamphlet with resources for ex-offenders including a page on bonding. When I gave him some addresses, he said, “Thank you, miss. I went to about 20 agencies, and it was in desperation that I finally thought of calling back home.”
  • At a Kmart store, I looked around when I heard someone say, “Miss Librarian.” A young man whom I did not recognize was smiling at me as he said, “You were the librarian at the detention center. I really liked the books you got for me. Now I am trying to get my GED, so I can improve myself.”
  • In one of the more upscale department stores, a young man and a well-dressed young woman approached. I recognized him as one of the inmates who used to be a regular library user in the detention center where I had worked four years previously. Our eyes met. “Hi”, he said. “I know you from somewhere. Was it at the community college?” “No”, I smiled, wished him a good afternoon, and turned away, wondering if his companion knew about his past life, but glad that community college was now in his vocabulary.
  • Walking toward a parking garage in Baltimore one evening, I passed a man who said, “Weren’t you a librarian in the prison atï¿Ã‚½? You really were a good librarian. I used to look forward to getting the books as they helped me pass the time.” He asked if I was still with the prison, then told me he had a job and was keeping out of trouble. The prison he mentioned was my first part-time prison job. I was amazed he recognized me 12 years later.
  • In December 2004, I attended a forum where the guest speaker was an ex-inmate, the first person in the United Stated to be exonerated based on DNA evidence. During intermission I introduced myself as the librarian in the institution where he had been incarcerated. His face lit up as he hugged me and told the group how helpful I had been to him during his period of incarceration. I do not recall having done anything special for him, but he said that in order to facilitate reading on his cell block, I gave him a job to distribute books. When security staff made it difficult to get reading materials, I found ways to circumvent the difficulty. When he returned to the podium, he acknowledged my presence and mentioned the help he received from the library. His elderly father turned to me and said, “God bless you, young lady.”
  • An unedited email I received from an exonerated prisoner read: HI MISS SHIRLEY IT WAS SO GREAT SEEING YOU AGAIN YOU HELPED ME IN SO MANY WAYS I THOUGHT HOW IF I HADN'T MET YOU I MAY NOT OF MADE IT OUT AS SOON AS I DID THANKS FOR EVERYTHING...
I no longer work directly with prisoners. As library Ccoordinator, I am responsible for providing programs for all the libraries in Maryland. I work towards getting more barriers removed to improve inmates’ access to information, to make the library a more inviting place, and more importantly, to get the right staff to make it happen.

For additional informantion contact Glennor Shirley.