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Juvenile Ex-Offenders Need Libraries Too

by on November 1, 2013

As a teacher, sometime librarian and present day counselor in a jail’s school program, I work with teenagers, ages 16 to 21, many of them only recently discovering that they like to read. Our jail school offers them a little rolling library on wheels with a limited selection of ragtag paperback donations, comic books, and book orders that we hope will make it into next year’s budget. Even with this limited collection, I know that I keep them busy and interested in reading. The public library can offer them so much more when they are released.

Thinking that there must be information about high risk teenagers and the books they wanted to read, I checked ALA’s website and found, Teens Need Libraries, an issue brief distributed by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Our teens need libraries–yes, and finally, these teens have discovered one, in jail, and for all the reasons listed in the “Teens Need Libraries” issue brief [1].  Teens need to access print and online resources that meet their needs and interests, [they] need programs that meet their unique needs and interests and [they] need additional help in preparing for college and the workforce.  Yes, yes, yes, our incarcerated students need the library. How was I ever going to get them there after their release?

Who Wants A Troublemaker?
Even if I manage to nudge a few of them in that direction, what is the likelihood that they’ll fit in at college or in the work force? Many of them have been labeled ‘troublemaker’ for years prior to landing in jail and have begun to wear that label as an emblem of honor. These youths are the living evidence that libraries use to support the need for young adult services (the idea that libraries need to offer teens supervised after-school time when they are more likely to become victims of crime or to be influenced by gang activity)[2]. No, even if our students have developed an appetite for reading, they don’t fit the description of the average Teen Reading Club participant, and it isn’t likely that the average young adult librarian will jump for joy seeing them walk in the door.  I guess my idea of their continuing to read, and leading successful post-jail lives, is somewhat wishful thinking. The statistics are against them, incarcerated children are more than likely to return to jail – their odds are 2 in 5 [3].

Libraries, Teens, A Positive Future
The YALSA brief outlines many of the reasons why these children are sitting in jail and only now discovering books.  Teens need guidance and access to resources to envision and pursue a positive future. [4] Teens without a connection to a library have a much higher risk factor for drug use and criminal activity. It is no surprise that when asked, almost none of them have a library card, and almost 3/4 of them have never even been to the library.

Five Emerging Practices in Juvenile Re-Entry
Libraries though, of course, aren’t the only ones concerned with teens’ futures. Agencies working with juvenile ex-offenders are just as concerned about the future and are very focused on teens re-entering the community successfully. They realize that guidance and access to resources are the keys to successful re-entry and lower recidivism rates.

The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments’ Report, Five Emerging Practices in Juvenile Re-Entry highlights five overarching principles [5]:

1. Integrating the science of adolescent brain development into the design of reentry initiatives.2. Ensuring that reentry initiatives build in youths’ strengths and assets to promote pro-social development.
3. Engaging families and community members in a meaningful manner throughout the reentry process.
4. Prioritizing education and employment as essential elements of a reentry plan.
5. Providing a stable, well-supported transition to adulthood that helps to create lifelong connections.

As both a librarian and a transition counselor, I recognize that the goals are:

  • Understanding the adolescent mind.
  • Acknowledging their needs and interests.
  • Engaging the community.
  • Emphasizing education and encouraging employment.

The Freedom Ticket
Daniel Marcou, librarian at the Hennepin County Library (Minn.), has referred to a library card as ‘a freedom ticket.'[6]  How can the library use this freedom ticket idea to help frame a successful transition back into the community for incarcerated youth? How can the community become engaged in the effort? How might Young Adult Services specialists best contribute? Having observed the love of reading blossoming among incarcerated youth, and seeing how books can serve as a source of inspiration and transformation, I believe that the library can become a key player in helping formerly incarcerated youth successfully re-integrate into society.

Is your library or community organization doing anything to help previously-incarcerated  young adults ? Leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments.


1. “Issue Brief: Teens Need Libraries.” Young Adult Library Services Association. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2013
2. “Helping Libraries Meet the Diverse Needs of Teens Report 2012.” Young Adult Library Services Association. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.
3. Davis, Lois. “To Stop Prisons’ Revolving Door.” RAND Corporation. The Los Angeles Times, 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.
4. Ibid.
5. Bilchik, Shay. “Five Emerging Practices in Juvenile Reentry – CSG Justice Center.” CSG Justice Center. Council of State Governments, 31 May 2011. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.
6. Lilienthal, Stephen. “Prisons and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out.” Library Journal 1 (2013): n. pag. Library Journal. Web 21 Sept. 2013.