A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Libraries in Lock-Up

by on March 28, 2013

Many prisons, if not all, have some form of a library whether it is fixed or roaming. Some are closets filled to the ceiling with books; some are bookmobiles that make weekly or monthly stops. Others have full-fledged law libraries with their own librarians. No matter what the library itself looks like, it is their sheer existence that is so meaningful. Librarians have been working to increase the number and effectiveness of prison library programs so that prisoners can make the most of their time in lock-up and have a chance at gaining and retaining their freedom. Here are a few programs from libraries around the country:

Freedom Ticket
Hennepin County Library in Minnesota has a program called “Freedom Ticket” that offers a wide variety of events and classes that are intended to help incarcerated persons successfully reenter into their community. Library workers go to the prison to offer assistance with job resumes, housing facilities, and education. By teaching the inmates how to reenter society after being locked up for an extended period of time, they are giving them a chance at staying out of prison. Librarian Daniel Marcou also keeps up a blog called Freedom Ticket, which offers links to information, updates on past attendees, book reviews, and other things that are relevant to Freedom Ticket’s cause[1].

Reading Is A Great Escape
The Jessup Correctional Facility (Jessup, MD) offers literacy programs, instructional videos, book clubs, and access to law and medical books and records. Some inmates read for the sake of reading: it otherwise keeps them out of trouble. While many people find reading to be an escape from the drone of everyday life, inmates find it keeps them sane while they’re incarcerated. Others seek to expand their knowledge of the law as to assist in their own court hearings. In Jessup Correctional, some inmates use the medical books to ensure that “when the clinic prescribes something, they want to make sure they’re not part of some medical experiment[2].” Many inmates have never stepped foot in a library prior to incarceration so offering this kind of access to information can greatly increase their chance of adapting back to normal societal behavior.

Reading with Children
Both Hennepin County and Jessup Correctional offer programs in which inmates are offered a chance to read to their children. During visiting hours, inmates are encouraged to read to their kids, which allow them to spend time together, to bond, and to improve literacy for both parties. Eddie Connally, an inmate at Jessup, said, “You know, and it actually changed a lot of prisoners’ lives because the one thing that happens in all too many cases is that we only get to see our children in the visiting room[3].”

Welcome to the Internet
I think it’s safe to say that if a person has been in prison since the mid- to late-80s, or even the early 90s, they might not know much about technology. With the rapidly changing technology these days, it’s hard for even a tech-savvy person to keep up. Since many documents and applications are digital these days, it’s understandable that people who leave the prison system have a hard time adjusting. Some public and prison libraries, such as Bonita-Sunnyside Public Library in San Diego, CA, and the Colorado State Library program offer classes in technology to inmates and formerly incarcerated persons. They don’t just want to teach them how to use the Internet but they’re giving them potential job skills, boosting their knowledge and their resumes, ensuring they can be financially independent, assisting them with housing, and making them comfortable in their local library. In Denver, MLIS student Melanie Colletti helped implement Free to Learn, a program to assist the recently released with their re-entry into society by helping them with technological skills. She collaborates with prison libraries and halfway houses to, “provide free space for former inmates who are often residents in transitional houses and helps them to learn computer and Internet skills[4],” so that they can function successfully and retain their freedom.

While this is just a small sample of what public and prison libraries have to offer to incarcerate persons, I encourage you to see if your library offers any similar services. If so, what can you do to improve them? If not, is there a way you can encourage your branch/system to create one? Since the library inside a prison may not be all it can be, the opportunity is present to help change a person’s life for the better. Do you know of any innovative public library/prison programming? Share the details in the comments below.

[1] Marcou, Daniel. January 24, 2013, Freedom Ticket, http://www.hclib.org/pub/info/outreach/freedomticket/.

[2] Shirley, Glennor. “Prison Library Offers A Place To Escape”. Interview by Liane Hansen. NPR. May 29, 2011.

[3] Shirley, Glennor. “Prison Library Offers A Place To Escape”. Interview by Liane Hansen. NPR. May 29, 2011.

[4] Lilienthal, Stephen M., “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out,” Library Journal: Accessed March 2, 2013. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/02/library-services/prison-and-public-libraries/