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Magazine Feature

It’s What Works: Outreach to Probationers and Parolees

by Victoria Horst & John Mack Freeman on January 5, 2015

When most people think of parolees, their first thought probably isn’t to sign them up for a library card. But in Tifton (Ga.) that’s exactly what we do. Since October 2012, the Tifton-Tift County Public Library (TTCPL) and the Tifton Day Reporting Center (DRC) have developed a working relationship that has allowed the library to expand outreach activities in the community and has given the DRC one more resource to offer their clients.

The mission of the DRC program is to “provide select probationers and parolees the opportunity to change criminal thinking and behavior through a combination of  counseling, educational programming, and close supervision.”1 It is a non-resident prison alternative for people with drug addictions who have committed nonviolent crimes. Participants in the programs attend regular Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They also attend and participate in classes designed to help them change criminal behavior, take responsibility for their actions, and see how their behavior affects their lives and the lives of their families. Over the course of the program, clients learn what triggers their addictive behaviors and they develop positive coping strategies. They also work on basic life skills. They may take anger management training, parenting workshops, GED prep classes, and basic adult literacy classes if they need them. The program works hard to involve family members and other supporting individuals in their reintegration process. It also puts clients in touch with services in the community that they might use either while as part of the program, or when they leave. People from vocational rehabilitation programs, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, Behavioral Services, the Department of Labor, the public library, and other area resources come and speak about the various services their programs offer. All programming used by the DRC is driven by the “What Works” body of research that identifies programming and principles that reduce recidivism and promote public safety.

All of these programs are available to clients free of charge while they are participating in the program. If clients consistently test positive for drugs, have attendance problems, or do not progress satisfactorily in the program, they can be reassigned to a traditional jail or prison for the duration of their sentence. The program lasts approximately one year and it has proven very effective. A Georgia State University study determined that a graduateof the program has a three year reconviction rate of 7 percent.2 People completing a traditional jail sentence are reconvicted at a rate slightly over 25 percent. And, the program is an effective use of scarce funds. In 2012, it cost $16.40/day for a client to participate in a Day Reporting Center program. In comparison, it costs $50.17 a day to house and feed an inmate.3

A new group of clients begins the program in Tifton every four weeks. Classes vary from four or five parolees to no more than fifteen. The first day in the program can be daunting for many of the DRC’s new clients. They are drug tested and told that drug testing will be an integral part of their lives for the next nine to twelve months. They have new rules to follow, a new schedule to learn, and they receive a large amount of information about the resources that are available to them. Luckily, most clients bring a family member or close friend to act as their sponsor and advocate during this tumultuous period.

Introducing Library As Partner

TTCPL staff were invited to speak to incoming classes in the fall of 2011. The director of the center knew that the library offered a great deal of free programming for children and the idea was that a librarian would come out and tell the clients about activities they could do with their children that would be inexpensive and also help with their rehabilitation. A significant part of addiction rehabilitation is the substitution of good habits for bad, and since many people are strongly motivated by the desire to be good parents for their children, it is often possible to influence people by including their children in the discussion. Library staff spoke briefly about what was necessary to get a library card, and we handed out bookmarks and brochures explaining our services.

As the library staff listened to the introductory lectures that new clients received, it became evident that we had a great deal more to offer these people than a schedule for storytimes. We also realized that the library message was just one of many the clients received that first day and that, if we expected to make more of an impact, we needed to do something more interesting and dramatic than yet another presentation. We were seeing a few of the DRC clients in the library, but we did not think we were doing as good a job as we could to get them in the door and involved in what we offer other community members.

A New Level of Engagement

In late 2013, library employees John Mack Freeman and David Styer were able to work out a system by which we could register library patrons anywhere we decided to set up. The system employs Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections that allow a laptop-based integrated library system (ILS) to remotely hook into our server for instantaneous registration. The ILS that we use also features a stand-alone system to register people in locations that lack an Internet connection. TTCPL is a member of the PINES consortia of Georgia libraries that run the Evergreen ILS. Library staff members have now done library card drives at elementary and high school functions, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities in the area. After a discussion with DRC Director Kay Simpson and her staff, we now offer that service during our monthly presentations to the DRC clients.

Now, instead of a five- to ten-minute talk where some people’s interests may wander, we have a tightly regimented program that introduces DRC clients to the library quickly and easily. About a week before the new orientation, we receive a call from the DRC, letting us know when the event will be. The day before, the staff going to the event packs all of the items they will need, including a laptop, power cord for the laptop, extension cord, Ethernet cord, barcode scanner, pens, blank forms, blank cards, Sharpies (to write names on cards), brochures, and bookmarks.

Because the DRC program is not based in a prison/jail facility, the library staff does not have to undergo the same screening process that many outsiders encounter when attempting to enter a traditional prison. The staff knows us, we are allowed complete access to the facility, and the material we bring to the program is not screened for contraband. This streamlines the process greatly and contributes to the feeling that the staff and external organizations are working in partnership with the clients to help them achieve something positive and worthwhile. We are proud to contribute to that effort.

We arrive at the center about ten minutes before their 9 a.m. start time. During this time, one person will set up the laptop and load the ILS while the other person introduces themselves to the clients and their family members, passing out library card application forms. As people finish the forms, they are passed off to the person with the laptop so that they can immediately begin to register them. Because the ILS is available anywhere, any previous accounts, overdue balances, or other problems can immediately be seen and rectified.

As the tech person continues to register patrons, the other staff person is introduced by the DRC director. Then, that staff person introduces the library and delivers our five minute talk about the library that typically focuses on three main points: education, employment, and entertainment. After the talk, the presenter passes out the new library cards with brochures and bookmarks while the tech person tears down the registering station and packs it back up. Overall, the event takes about one hour of prep time and about one hour of staff time to attend each month. We know that taking much longer than this to explain services to people is probably wasted—the clients are overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving (some of it critical to them being able to remain in the program). The carry-home message from our presentation should be “The Library CAN and WILL help you do all sorts of great and useful things. Come see us.” Some groups of clients have more questions than others, and we will stay and talk to people as long as they have questions. The most common questions concern issues around getting library cards for clients’ children, borrowing times, and computer help. In addition, some people ask about programming for their children.

Both clients and their sponsors are able to get valid library cards before the library staff packs up and leaves. The DRC staff strongly encourages all participants in the program to apply for a card during this opportunity, though it is not required. We have noticed that while there are some people in the program that will already have a library card, the majority of the class will not. If we find a client with a card, we will make sure that it is valid and up-to-date and thank the client for supporting the library. Although we have discovered some patrons with outstanding materials, this has been a very small portion of the clientele. If the client has a card with a few fines on it, we will forgive the fines and issue a new card. We believe giving people another way to succeed is an important part of this program.

Best Practices

We have discovered a number of things working with the DRC. Many of their clients have not finished high school and many of them believe a public library is where educated people go to check out books that are not relevant to their lives. They need to hear someone say that the library is full of computers they can use to apply for jobs—they are not likely to read the brochure you handed out or left in a rack for them to pick up. They need to hear someone say that the public library has DVDs they can borrow as well as books and programming for their kids. They need to hear someone say that public library staff will help them do what they need to do, whether that is get an email address, find a book on how to raise a child with a disability, or apply for a job. Most of these clients are not well off, and the DRC staff has heard many comments from clients on how helpful having the library available to borrow materials has been to them. This feedback is, in our minds, another strong indication that the program is worthwhile.

We don’t look at this program as an instance of the wonderful public library coming to the aid of people down on their luck. The clients of the DRC are part of our patron base, and not meeting their unique needs would be a disservice to our community. Although we could use the DRC to help us find a client that has lost or overdue materials, we have never wished to do so. We also do not indicate on any of the clients’ paperwork received from the DRC that they were registered there. As members of our community, they deserve all of the benefits that come with having a library card. And, for people who have typically had negative experiences with authority figures and government agencies, forming a positive connection with these patrons may help their overall community connection in the long run.

The library staff is often asked to do community presentations for funding, service organizations, and other groups, and we try to work in our relationship with the DRC as often as possible. The local library board has been very supportive of a program that grew very quickly from a one-off presentation to a marginalized group to a scheduled monthly event. Since there is very little budgetary impact and minimal staff requirement (the DRC site is less than half a mile from the library and we do our program in approximately an hour first thing in the morning, so there is little impact on library staffing), we feel that this program is nothing but a win for us.

Since we have been registering DRC clients for library cards during their program orientation, we have seen an increase in library visits by program participants. One of the unexpected perks of the program is that DRC staff members have become loyal library supporters. A number of staff members have registered for cards while we were registering clients and have started coming to the library and using services they had not previously known we offer! DRC staff members often hear comments from clients surprised at what they find when they come into the building. Both DRC and library staff members are very pleased with this collaboration and have every intention of continuing to work together.

Bringing This Program to Your Area

If you are interested in starting a program like this in your area, here are a few things you might like to know.

Understand the Programs Near You

If there are groups in prison settings, make sure the people in the program actually get to go home at night. Also, there may be many restrictions as to who is allowed to go into a prison, how many people, what they are allowed to bring into the facility and/or leave there. Prisons sometimes have their own libraries, and there are prison librarians. There may be opportunities to form partnerships that are completely different than the program we do, but they will still be worthwhile. As is the truth in so much of library work, the more flexible you are, the more likely you are going to be able to do something successful and worth doing.

What Kind of Flexibility Do You Have With Your ILS?

Can you search your patron database when you are not in the building? Although we do forgive fines attached to patrons and will issue a new library card free of charge to people in the program, we are not able to forgive outstanding library property. Not being able to search the patron database in real time leaves you open to giving a card to someone who may owe you a significant amount of property.

Find the Right Staff

There may be some judgmental people working in your library; you should leave them there when you go out to do programs such as this. Cultivate a positive attitude. The staff at the Tifton DRC are dedicated professionals who spend their lives coaching, cajoling, and being cheerleaders for people who may never have had anyone on their side before. We need to do the same. We tell the clients, “We are here to meet you where you are now and help you get where you want to go”—just like any other patron that might come in the building.

References

  1.  Georgia Department of Corrections, Day Reporting Centers & DRC Lite Fact Sheet, accessed Sept. 30, 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

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