When someone mentions a prison library, some might picture a small, dark room in the bowels of a prison, a weary librarian toiling among old and outdated material, prisoners creeping among the stacks, guards alert for any sign of trouble. At least, that is how I pictured a prison library. That was before I worked in one for two years.
I will tell anyone, being a prison librarian is the hardest, most rewarding, saddest, happiest, challenging, eye-opening, frustrating, and interesting librarian position around. I would tell myself, “If you can survive this library, you can survive any library.” Prison libraries come with their fair share of challenges, but on the other hand, they present opportunities not found anywhere else in the library profession. The mission of a prison library is to provide educational and recreational resources to inmates. This can take the form of books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and library programming. The hope is that this will aid in the rehabilitation process, and, most importantly, provide a means of escape and distraction so that inmates stay out of trouble. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop in prison, and having a book in them is much better than a weapon.
A typical day for me consisted of the following: opening and shutting the library several times in the day while supervising around fifteen inmate library workers; ordering, receiving, and inventorying ILL requests; answering inmate letters to the library; visiting segregation; ordering periodicals and law books; picking up book donations; emptying book drop boxes; answering reference questions; providing notary services; IT troubleshooting; creating monthly programming; and…responding to altercations. As you can see, this is a very busy schedule, and is typical for most prison librarians. One person performs the jobs of several. This can create a lot of stress and frustration.
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for a prison librarian is money. Most of the time, the prison library is low on the list of the prison’s priorities and is overlooked. Book donations are a prison library’s lifeblood. Networking with local bookstores is a great way for a prison library to obtain books and replace out-of-date material clogging the shelves. When I received book donations, it was like Christmas morning in the library. The inmates appreciated my efforts at trying to provide new material, and the prison administration appreciated donations because it saved money. Keeping the collection looking full improves the image of the library for inmates and makes it appear inviting.
In a prison there’s a motto: “Security is first.” Before working in one, I had to undergo training on how to deal with dangerous situations and people. The most draining aspect of my job was monitoring the inmates visiting the library while at the same time answering reference questions, performing legal research, and assisting patrons. (As a side note, I always referred to the inmates as patrons when in the library. This made the atmosphere professional and I was told several times that it was appreciated.) I learned to look two ways at one time and to be observant of my surroundings. Every so often I would have to stop a patron explaining a question to me in order to zero in on a suspicious person. Sometimes I had to raise my voice. A few times I had to dismiss the entire library due to bad behavior. Security is first and a prison librarian has to put security above all.
Creative opportunities abound in a prison library. Workshops, book clubs, and community service projects are both welcomed and needed. One of the best things about my job was the instant gratification I experienced when I helped an inmate find the information they needed, or when inmates approached me after a workshop and told me that they learned something new that day. Providing educational, creative, and meaningful services is paramount. My goal was to find cheap solutions, which included creating slideshows and handouts on a variety of topics, including genealogy, copyright/writing, and astrobiology (my favorite). I also supervised a community service program in which inmates earned a certificate for writing letters of encouragement to soldiers overseas. The services prison librarians provide may seem insignificant, but have far reaching and lasting effects.
For the most part, inmates who visit the library do so in order to get out of their cells and experience a change in scenery. The library provides a meeting place for inmates to talk and meet those who share common interests. It was not uncommon for patrons to explain their life stories to me; how they arrived at their current situation and their hopes for the future. In those times I offered advice in the form of book recommendations that matched their situation and life circumstances.
During a prison librarian’s daily duties, they will be asked to request a variety of interlibrary loan books. Most of the requests are benign, but some materials are not allowed per prison policy. Censorship is a harsh reality for prison librarians and counterintuitive to the librarian profession. However, security is paramount, and in prison, some rights have been stripped, including the right to some forms of reading material.
If you have an interest in partnering with your local prison library, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and offer assistance. Believe me, prison librarians welcome any and all help that they can get. Prison libraries are not dungeons like I described at the beginning of the article, but places of learning, recreation, and rehabilitation. A book can literally change a life in prison, I’ve seen it! Consider partnering with your state’s prison system and help change the world outside by changing lives inside.
Here are some observations from my time as a prison librarian:
Popular Authors: James Patterson, Louis L’Amour, Patricia Cornwell, J.K. Rowling, David Baldacci, William Johnstone, Jim Butcher, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Dean Koontz.
Popular Topics: Anything Naruto, small/tiny houses, business plans, self-help, cooking, crochet, languages, superheroes.
Most Common Question: Can you help me get a sample business plan for XYZ?
Craziest Reference Question: What is the gestation time for a field mouse (pretty sure someone had a pet mouse)?
Favorite Moment: Being told that a poem I had hanging at the reference desk, and had copied for a patron, helped them not get into a fight with their cellmate.
Weirdest ILL Request: A book on eel farming.
Biggest Pet Peeve: People stealing pens, even though they were tied to the desk in a glue and tape cocoon.
For more on this topic check out PLA’s latest Quick Reads book “Get Inside: Responsible Jail and Prison Library Service.’