Magazine Feature

Family Literacy on the Inside

by Nicholas Higgins on March 19, 2013

He tried to recall what he had read about the disease. Figures floated across his memory, and he recalled that some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. The doctor remembered the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day . . . (W)hat man knows ten thousand faces? 1

People who are incarcerated come from our neighborhoods. They are not a homogeneous group. They don’t prefer certain kinds of books over others because of their inmate status. Most men and women who are in jails and prisons are not going to be locked up forever—95 percent of them will come back to the community.2 It’s a diverse group made up of parents, children, sisters, grandfathers, friends, cousins, uncles, people you might like, and people you may not like. Many would rather be home with their kids than sitting in an early literacy program at the jail. Many would be patrons at your branch if not for their incarceration.

There are currently 2.24 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and local jails, or 1 out of every 107 adults.3 And, 4.8 million more are under correctional supervision (parole or probation).4 This is a 500 percent increase over the last thirty years and belies our wholesale endorsement of the criminal justice system.5 We have voted for tough-on-crime lawmakers who promised mandatory minimum sentencing, a war on drugs, and three strikes laws. We okayed an unprecedented prison building boom and ancillary state corrections budgets. We voted away access to federal Pell grants for the growing prison population, causing most college degree bearing programs offered in prison to dry up overnight. Yet for all the attention and money we pay to the correctional system in this country, I feel we are in the dark about the actual human costs of this system. “What man knows 10,000 faces?” For that matter, what man knows 2.24 million?

The Need

Between 1995 and 2005 the female inmate population increased at a rate nearly twice that of men.6 Between 1991 and 2007 the number of children with a mother in prison has increased by 131 percent.7 On any given day, more than 1.7 million children in this country have a parent serving a sentence in a state or federal prison.8 This represents a small fraction of the minor population in the country, but as we all know, incarceration tends to favor certain neighborhoods over others. There are some neighborhoods in our city that have the unfavorable distinction of being dubbed “Million Dollar Blocks”—a handful of blocks in the city that supply a disproportionate amount of its residents to state correctional facilities, drawing millions of dollars in state tax money to do so.9 Parents are in short supply on these streets.

But where do we send kids’ parents when they go to prison? Our correctional facilities are by and large built on the outskirts oftowns, on islands, or in the country where no one lives for miles around. This physical displacement adds to the abstraction of the statistics. Upstate is the term we use in this city to refer to prison in general. It’s a term so nebulous it renders our imaginations useless in positing its whereabouts or its physical properties. When convicted, you simply “go upstate.” Upstate could be on a cloud, or it could be the cloud itself for all we know. Even so, these men, women, and their families are part of our communities and it’s our job to find them and offer them a book.

The Pitch

Prison library services fit hand in glove with the mission of every public library, and your library can extend its services to people in jails and prisons cheaply and effectively. The reason we come to work each day is to serve all of our residents, whether they live in homes near the branch,  or in cells at the jail on the outskirts of town. Striving to serve everyone lies at the heart of all we do at the public library. We have the unique opportunity and obligation to meet the needs of this large, and largely invisible, population.10

In 2010, The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Correctional Services Program (CSP) received a small slice of a systemwide early literacy grant targeting fathers in New York City. Up to that point, CSP was concerned primarily with getting reading material to incarcerated New Yorkers through mobile libraries at the city jails. Programming was always on the backburner due to lack of funds and staff availability. Called “Daddy and Me at the Library” and funded by the New York State Education Department Family Literacy Library Services Program with $38,000, NYPL set a goal to get more fathers to attend the library’s early childhood programs. The desired result was that children would become better readers and be more likely to succeed in school. Couched in all of this was a push to get dads to develop better relationships with their kids in very simple, but meaningful ways.

Former colleague, and ardent CSP supporter, Leslie Ederer came to me to ask how she could help get books to mothers who were incarcerated on Rikers Island with their newborn babies. She approached me at a time when I just stepped into my role overseeing CSP, at a time when I still knew very little about jails and how libraries fit into them. Ederer told me not to think about jail populations and general populations as distinct from one another. Regarding the moms at the jail, Ederer told me, “Just think of them as parents.” This simple advice has guided just about everything I’ve done at the library since. I truly regret meeting Leslie so late in her career, and so early in mine.

Seeing an opportunity to expand programming at the jail, Ederer asked for a small amount of funds from the bigger Daddy and Me grant to be given to CSP. Through her efforts we received, not without anxiety, $3,800 to start a family literacy program. It sounds quaint now, but back then I had no idea how I was going to spend out what I perceived to be such a large amount of money.

For years I had a proposal in my back pocket for a book recording project for incarcerated fathers. I was waiting for the right time and circumstance to pitch it. Talking to dads about the importance of reading to kids sounded easy to me, and recording them reading a book seemed simple enough. I’m a dad and I assumed other fathers enjoy talking about their kids as much as I like talking about mine. That was the proposal in a nutshell. Keeping the plan simple allowed me to be able to start at the drop of a hat if an opportunity presented itself.11

I pitched the idea to Ron Purvis, the newly installed and charismatic deputy of programs at the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) on Rikers Island. I had been in the process of transforming our biweekly mobile library unit at EMTC (reaching just two housing areas) to a weekly 2,000 volume standing library open to all housing areas in the facility.12 Purvis was interested in finding out what programs we could run out of the new library space.

We both agreed that an important link to successful community reentry is a strong family bond. Many incarcerated fathers have damaged relationships with their children because they are locked up and are not present in their children’s lives. A simple way to repair some of this damage, especially in young kids, is for these fathers to take an active role in their child’s literacy skills development. Simply put, these fathers could create stronger bonds by reading books to their kids. Working with a group of fathers, selected by Purvis, we would help them get comfortable reading with their children, dispel any stereotypes about how reading to kids is strictly a mother’s role, and lay a foundation for a lifelong love of reading and learning—for both parent and child.

I strongly emphasized that the Daddy and Me program would not cost the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) a dime. Further, all the work developing and running the program would rest on our shoulders, not on the backs of DOC staff. I distilled the verbal proposal into easily digestible bullet points for Purvis to send up the chain for approval.

  • The goal of the Daddy and Me program is to help strengthen parents’ relationships with their young children through reading, creating a first step to other positive parenting habits.
  • NYPL will purchase a small digital audio recorder to record parents reading a book to their kids. This book could be a favorite of the child, or a book that the father selects with help from the librarian.
  • Once recorded, these stories will be transferred to compact disc, labeled, and sent (with a new copy of the book) to the inmate’s children.
  • Parents will be required to participate in librarian-led workshops on tips and strategies for reading to infants aged zero to five years.
  • A children’s librarian will demonstrate how he reads board books/picture books to babies and toddlers.
  • The librarian will discuss and display to parents appropriate titles and book formats for children aged zero to five.
  • Fathers will have a chance to practice with the book before recording.
  • Participants can sign up for library cards and they can also sign up their kids. New library cards will be sent by NYPL to the inmate’s family.
  • When available, children’s book authors or illustrators will be invited to talk with parents about developing parent/child relationships through literature.
  • Any privacy or media restrictions set by DOC will be strictly adhered to by NYPL.

I suggested to Purvis that he should schedule the classes any way he saw fit. We wanted to eliminate as much burden for DOC officers and other involved staff.

The Green Light

Four months passed without any follow up. Then one afternoon I received a call from the commissioner’s office. Could we start the book recording project in three week’s time? They would need a curriculum, a schedule of classes, and a list of technology we’d be using. We had none of these things. What we had were the bullet points, some money to buy a recorder, a stack of CD cases an Eagle Scout had donated, and an intern. I was already well into the process of looking for other ways to spend out the grant money. I had thought our ship had already sailed on the original Rikers proposal.

Yet I knew if we didn’t say yes to these terms, the project could be lost for good. A rule of thumb we use with the DOC (a rule I would never apply to life outside of jail) is that if we’re asked, we say we can do anything. After we say yes, we work like mad to figure out how to do it, often with very little time and no money. The reason is simple: Rarely does a door open at jail. Once a door does open, we kick it in and hold our ground. It’s a rather inelegant way of doing things, but it works.

To get the ball rolling I hired our Pratt Library School intern Sarah Ball as an hourly employee. She got to work designing our CD covers and inserts. We found a portable digital audio recorder that cost about $400; purchased a $20 dollar flash drive for audio storage; bought $80 worth of blank CDs and labels; and put in an order for $1,300 worth of children’s books for giveaways. These modest expenditures, plus $2,000 for Ball’s ongoing efforts, took care of our grant funds nicely.13

To design the curriculum we drew from what we already knew about early literacy training. While working at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) as a trainee from 2006 to 2009, I cut my teeth on children’s programming. In no way did I want to be a children’s librarian, but because the library serves everyone, I took it as my job to lend a hand. Coming to work to a short-staffed branch, finding yourself suddenly knee deep in four-year-olds delivering a tone deaf Hokey Pokey while telling nannies to shut off their phones, is classic trial by fire program training common to many public library settings—one in which I found myself on more than one occasion. Although highly stressful, it’s a fairly efficient way to find out that we all can learn the basic skills necessary to sing, play, and read with kids. We might even like it after awhile.

At that time Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) curricula drove much of the children’s programming at BPL and provided a platform for comprehensive staff training.14 This training model helped establish BPL as a leader in services for children and families, manifest in their innovative First 5 Years initiative.15 Ball and I envisioned guiding dads through the original ECRR six early literacy skills (Print Motivation, Vocabulary, Print Awareness, Letter Knowledge, Phonological Awareness, and Narrative Skills) to give them a heads-up on what their children were learning about reading and writing before actually knowing how to read and write. We wanted to teach them practical ways of feeding their kids’ hungry brains. In an effort to make the ECRR much more digestible for parents and caregivers, these six skills have since been streamlined into the Five Easy Practices in a second iteration of ECRR where Reading, Singing, Playing, Talking, and Writing are stressed. We incorporate both iterations in our Daddy and Me workshops as the six skills are embedded in these five simple practices that every parent can share with their kids.

Volunteers

Maureen McCoy and Stephanie Brueckel (librarians and former colleagues from BPL), along with Adrianna Mitchell (then a library trainee and incidentally my family’s current neighborhood librarian), all volunteered to help launch our first Daddy and Me cycle. We set up a total of four sessions at two hours each, spread out over a two-week time frame. The first three sessions were reserved for discussing the Five Easy Practices, demonstrating storytelling and finger play, showing how books can be read to children in different ways, offering advice on choosing appropriate books, and taking time to let the dads practice reading the books they chose for their kids. We read books out loud to the group, and we did the Itsy-Bitsy Spider. We also spent a lot of time talking about our kids and what good things we want for them.

The final session (now, sometimes the final two sessions depending on the facility’s schedule or how quickly we get through the workshop content) was reserved for recording the dads’ stories. Each participant recorded their story individually, away from the rest of the group—in as private an area as was possible inside the jail. Before pressing the record button we let the men know it was okay to make mistakes. In the workshops we tried to teach them to be comfortable reading out loud. We let them know that it was perfectly okay if they didn’t know how to read the words and encouraged them to make up stories based on the pictures if necessary. All this is okay because their children are not longing for a perfect rendition of Fox and Sox, but rather a few moments of their dad’s voice spoken just to them, mistakes and all.

Once everyone was recorded, we burned each recording onto a disc, made the labels, packaged the CDs up with any artwork or writing the dads wanted to include, and processed any library card applications we received. For all our Daddy and Me programs, the DOC hosts a Family Day where parents can hand the books and recordings directly to their children. For those who can’t make it in for Family Day, we send the package directly to their home.

I don’t think we could have made this program any simpler. Once you have access to an audience you bring your storytime, your early literacy workshop, your author visit, or your finger plays and songs into jail. We have made well over two hundred recordings since the first cycle. We have run this program at least once in all but two facilities in New York City for men, women, and adolescent parents. We have expanded the program to include men in an alternative to incarceration (ATI) program in Midtown Manhattan. Most importantly, we have conducted virtually all of our program cycles without any additional funding after the grant period ended.

It’s not possible for us to do this without volunteer support. Volunteers are crucial to the success of any library program. Any relevant work you can offer to a volunteer or intern gives them experience they can hopefully parlay into paying jobs down the line. That’s your hook to get them in the door. But the latent value of this experience is that your active mentorship will forge lifelong advocates for public libraries in the individuals who will eventually shape the role of our libraries in generations to come.

Hannah Mermelstein showed up in our office one day looking for an opportunity to volunteer. As great a listener as I have ever met, Hannah followed up everything I said with questions that prompted me to think a bit more critically about the way I describe the work. She was a student in the Queens School of Library and Information Studies when I met her in early 2010. She soon started volunteering once a week. Mermelstein split her time helping push book carts for adult inmates, building a small library for detained teens, answering inmate correspondence, and ordering books for the collection. Eventually we passed the reigns so she could manage several Daddy and Me cycles on her own.

I asked Mermelstein, now a school librarian in Brooklyn, to describe her experience working at Rikers Island. In her response, I find insight into the value of library work in jails, and also the value of good volunteers to library programs in general:

The first time I went to Rikers, I was struck by how much it looked like a school, which is perhaps saying something about our schools. But there were definitely more locked gates and security checkpoints than in a school. I do a lot of work with Palestinians in the West Bank, so I’m familiar with checkpoints, but this is a little different because I’ve never worked with the Israeli army to implement a program.

The guards and program officers at Rikers are also a little different than Israeli soldiers, most notably because the officers and prisoners at Rikers generally have more in common than Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. So there’s a bit of individual humanity within an inhumane system. But there’s still a whole lot of yelling, a whole lot of violence. Not on the part of the prisoners, which at least some people suspect when they ask me if it’s scary to go to a prison. But on the part of the system as a whole.

So I try to let my presence be at least a small remedy to that. I don’t yell, I’m not violent, I try when possible in my interactions with people to pretend that the walls aren’t there, not to deny people’s experiences, but again to resist through normalcy. But there is sometimes a fine line between normalcy as a challenge to dehumanization and separation, and actually normalizing and thus accepting the system.

On the day-to-day, it means chatting with guys about favorite literature, or reminiscing about favorite children’s books, or giving teens the sexy books they want. Or a moment during the Mommy and Me program, which we did with mothers in the only women’s facility on Riker’s Island. The women were getting ready to have their pictures taken so we could put the image on the face of the audio CD the children would get with their mother’s voices. One woman was concerned about being photographed in her prison uniform, saying she didn’t want her child to see her like that. So I took off my sweater and offered it to her. Soon half the women in the room were passing my sweater to each other, which then took away any chance of individuality, but at least provided an opportunity for humanity. Now I’m not under any illusions about this. I’m not a savior and probably the women don’t even remember wearing my sweater. But it was a small thing I could do in the moment that I’m guessing was unusual and therefore maybe a little transgressive.16

It’s not easy to work in a jail. It’s not easy to compromise my values in order to open doors and gates, and it’s not easy to know that I can leave, whereas the people I’m working with cannot. It’s not easy to feel like it’s not easy, and then feel guilty about that, because I’m only there for a few hours, and voluntarily. This is something I’ve dealt with time and again in Palestine as well, so I’ve learned to accept that we all have reactions to whatever situations we face, and comparing or invalidating experiences is not particularly helpful.

With a lot of systems or organizations that I have a problem with, I ask myself whether I should work in the system or whether the only just thing to do is not to participate at all. In this case, even though I fundamentally disagree with the system, the people I am most directly working with are people who are involuntarily part of this system. This is what feels different to me, and what ultimately makes me find the work more worthwhile than problematic.17

What gives our democracy its special dignity and supports its legitimacy is that in order for it to work it must provide rights to everyone, even those on the outside of what is considered normal society. The moment we deny rights to certain people or groups, the moment we stop fighting tooth and nail for rights for people on the fringe, is the moment we become something else entirely. In public libraries we find a fairly straightforward expression of the democratic process. It’s our mission to welcome everyone to participate. It’s this inclusive mission that separates us from every other social service agency out there, and what drives much of the good will we’ve inherited over the years. We believe inmates deserve library services. If we didn’t, we’d be in a different business.

At the same time we also believe in the criminal justice system. A prison population spike that saw a 500 percent increase in just thirty years is a direct result of our political decisions in the voting booth. For a nation that counts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its total prison population, surely we believe in the value of that system. Having subscribed so fully to its role in our society, it is logical for us to assume the obligation of being fully conscious of its collateral consequences.

This article describes the experience developing a family literacy program at a jail on Rikers Island in New York City. It is through this lens that we hope you become inspired to extend a hand to people in your community who may not have access to your services. This doesn’t have to be a story just about jails and prisons. As a general petition to fold meaningful outreach initiatives into your short- and long-term strategic plans, I encourage you to read between the lines and imagine employing similar efforts to reach other populations who may not have traditional access to your library: people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people in nursing homes, children in hospitals, or anyone else who can’t easily get to your library.

I have always found it a problematic, slightly patronizing stance to say that people in these groups are the ones who need the library the most. I don’t think it’s our job to pretend to know what is and what isn’t good for people. We are about access, but people don’t have to take our stuff if they don’t want to. Our great strength has been in offering people a choice. Implicit
in this is an option not to choose. Let’s make sure we have good things to offer. Let’s make sure we continue to let everyone make that choice.

REFERENCES AND NOTES

  1. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert, First Vintage International ed. (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 38.
  2. Timothy Hughes and Doris James Wilson, Reentry Trends in the United States (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2002) (accessed Dec. 1, 2012).
  3. Lauren E. Glaze and Erika Parks, Correctional Population in the United States, 2011 (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Sentencing Project, (accessed Dec. 1, 2012). The Incarceration report is here (accessed Dec. 1, 2012).
  6. Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Prisoners in 2005 (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006).  (accessed Dec. 1, 2012).
  7. Lauren E. Glaze and Laura M. Maruschak, Parents in Prison and their Minor Children (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2008), (accessed Dec. 1, 2012).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Justice Mapping Center, (accessed Dec. 1, 2012). For a description of “Million Dollar Blocks,” go to “NYC Analysis” found in the Project Gallery.
  10. Every jail is unique and governed by its own particular logic. What we experience at Rikers Island may not translate exactly to your local jail experience. The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) is big. It oversees ten jails on the Island, one barge, and a handful of other jails located throughout the boroughs. Red tape and bureaucratic snares may present themselves less in smaller systems. Yet the subtext that lies under every word in the following narrative is an uncompromising devotion to the holy trinity of Patience, Flexibility, and Persistence. Holding fast to these three virtues will serve you well no matter if your jail is in New York City or Hazard County.
  11. Recording incarcerated parents reading to their kids is nothing new and I make no claims that this was an original idea. I encourage you to take our program and bend it to fit your own needs. The time, energy, and imagination you’ll exhaust to sustain and grow your project will brand it as your own.
  12. The jailhouse book cart has an odd pseudo-nostalgic appeal—as if this is the way prison libraries have always worked, and our consciousness of them tells us they should always be run this way. Because most of us have never experienced a prison library firsthand, our expectations and consciousness of them may have been informed by the movies and TV we watch. It’s the Shawshank Redemption effect. The book cart has become just another narrative building block in our collective story of the prison “experience.” But in practice, book carts make terrible libraries and in many ways help to reinforce the punitive processes of jail life—everyone must stand in a line, only two inmates are allowed at the cart at a time, only a few minutes are given on the cart so we can keep things moving. Through the lens of the jail’s mission—to keep the inmate population and staff safe—this is a perfectly acceptable process. Yet the role the public library should play here is to demonstrate something totally different. It should be a demonstration of how a free society does its business. A sign post for civil society. For that, you need space.
  13. The start-up funds for this project certainly helped, but by no means are they all necessary. The only real cost you need to be worried about if you want to replicate this program is the cost of the recorder. Certainly there are recorders that are less expensive. We had the funds, so we bought the one that was well reviewed at a lower- end price point. There are even cheaper recorders out there that could do the trick. For books, blank CDs, and other materials you could easily reach out to the community, local businesses, or religious organizations for support. We have not had an additional book or materials budget to support Daddy and Me cycles after the grant period ended. Still, we have continued to offer Daddy and Me programs once every one or two months. A budget for staff is nice, but years of budget fluctuations have taught all of us to creatively piece together services with a skeleton crew. Not fun, but by no means impossible.
  14. Every Child Ready to Read, (accessed Dec. 1, 2012).
  15. Brooklyn Public Library First 5 Years, (accessed Dec. 1, 2012). Offers helpful songs, stories, finger plays, and more to model programs on for your patrons or your own children.
  16. I was on the 7 train one afternoon in February 2011 when a woman I didn’t recognize sat next to me and started talking. She asked me about my kids, the work at Rikers Island, how Hannah and Sarah were doing and other things. After several minutes I was utterly embarrassed that I still didn’t recognize this woman who seemed to know me so well. I was also too embarrassed at that point to own up to her that that I didn’t know. She ultimately realized this and let me off the hook. “I’m Renee, don’t you remember? Green Eggs and Ham?” Renee was the woman who wore Hannah’s sweater first, and she indeed remembered the gesture. Renee asked me to thank Hannah for making it possible for her children to not have to see their mother in a photograph wearing a green jail jumpsuit. My not being able to immediately recognize Renee is both a testament to my spotty memory, but also to the impersonal institutional effect of a jail-issue green jumpsuit.
  17. Hannah Mermelstein, email correspondence with the author, Dec. 2, 2012.


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