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When the Prison Doors Slam Shut On a Teen: Hope in Literacy

by on December 11, 2014

Promoting literacy for incarcerated teens is a challenge. Encouraging reluctant readers to read is only one of many obstacles. Ask Karlan Sick, the current chair of Literacy for Incarcerated Teens  (LIT), a nonprofit library services organization that supports school libraries at the New York City school programs for incarcerated youth. Sick, a retired public librarian, recognizes the literacy needs of incarcerated teens stating,  “while detention centers are mandated by law to have schools,” libraries are not.[1]

Former executive-director of LIT and a former school librarian in a juvenile detention center, Jessica Fenster-Sparber, observes that “jails, detention centers, and prisons provide a unique opportunity to address young people’s literacy gaps…excellent school libraries are in dire need at these sites.”[2]

The Challenges

There is a lot more to consider than just encouraging reluctant readers to read. Challenges include:

  1. Collection development.
  2. Institutional compliance and cooperation.
  3. Inclusion of incarcerated teens as part of the public library’s young adult/outreach services.
  4. Collaboration with school, correctional facilities and public libraries.

Books for Incarcerated Youth

Public libraries need to recognize literacy’s role in empowering incarcerated teens. Dr. Ernest Morrell, Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College, Columbia University, explains it best: “Literacy is not just about decoding text. It’s about becoming a superior human being that can act powerfully upon the world.”[3]

Public librarians can access many specialized lists such as The New York Public Library’s Incarcerated Teens: A Booklist and School Library Journal’s From the Underground column.

The good news, however, is that young adult librarians already have the tools to work with this population. Dr. Alfred Tatum, current Director of the University of Illinois Chicago Reading Clinic, calls for the use of enabling text, ”texts that [minority students], (60% of incarcerated teens), find meaningful and that will help them…move beyond some of the tur­moil-related experiences they encounter outside school.” Dr. Tatum stresses that enabling text can “serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking, and acting.” [4]

Incarcerated teens do not want a “one size fits all” collection. Yes, they want urban fiction, but fantasy and other young adult genres appeal to them also. It is up to the librarian to get to know each individual audience.

School Libraries/Public Libraries Partnerships

Collaborative efforts between school districts and public library systems increase programming efforts, too.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Boys Totem Town, a juvenile detention center, was able to host Young Adult author, Francisco X. Stork, through a partnership with the Ramsey County Library, which helped fund the project. Stork spoke to students about his novel Behind the Eyes (Dutton, 2006), which deals with reform school. The Ramsey County Library’s outreach regularly visits the facility with both books and programs.[5]

Sabrina Carnesi is school librarian at a STEM magnet school in Newport News, Virginia. She promotes literacy services to many formerly detained youth. Her school library’s “Young Gents and Young Ladies” book discussion group addresses tough topics that these kids confront outside of their academic day. [6]

Young adult librarians and school librarians need to be attuned to teens inside facilities and those recently released. They share the same literacy concerns.

Innovation Gained Through Cooperation

Correctional facilities and public libraries are teaming up for pilot programs as new technologies emerge in library services. The correctional facility is a very important stakeholder in planning and is vital to program success.

Presently, Passages Academy has become the first school library to get iPads into the hands of its incarcerated students with, of course, the cooperation of the New York City Department of Corrections.[7]

Through the Urbana Free Library, the University of Illinois School of LIS and IMLS Mix IT Up, Joe Coyle offers a Teen Open Lab, a weekly digital music production program at the Champaign County JDC . The library and JDC hope that these pre-adjudicated teens will continue their library association through this program.

Promoting a Life-long Activity

In many states, teens as young as sixteen, are incarcerated in adult jails. Reading and literacy skills can be the one positive thing they leave jail with.

Barbara Roos, coordinator of teen services for the East Baton Rouge Parish Library in Louisiana and outreach coordinator to the local juvenile detention, gives them another—a Library Exit Packet. It includes an information packet about her library and its services, bookmarks for Text-a-Librarian and online databases, a coupon worth $5 at the library book store, a Fresh Start coupon to erase any fines they had, a previously approved library card, and a free book.[8]

Ms. Roos’ philosophy: We want to keep them reading.

Literacy and Education—The Better Alternatives

Whatever the reasons why they became incarcerated, promoting literacy and education are far better solutions than incarceration. One million dollars invested in incarceration reduces 300 crimes; one million dollars invested in education reduces 600 crimes.[9]  Literacy works.

[1] Chung, S. (2014). Literacy for Incarcerated Teens. School Library Journal, Fall (September). Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://www.slj.com/2014/09/literacy/literacy-for-incarcerated-teens/#_

[2] Ibid

[3] Morrell, E. (Keynote Speaker) (2014, June 3). Cultivating Youth Voices: Literacy and Agency for African American Males. Building a Bridge to Literacy. Lecture conducted from School of Information and Library Science at UNC, Chapel Hill.

[4] Tatum, A. (Keynote Speaker) (2014, June 3). Bridge to Literacy. Building a Bridge to Literacy. Lecture conducted from School of Information and Library Science at UNC, Chapel Hill.

[5] Marta, M. (2013). Partners In Success. School Library Journal, 11(1) (January 2013), 23-28.

[6] (E-mail interview, 10/09/14).

[7] Fenster-Sparber, J. A.Kennedy, C.Leon, & Schwartz. (2012). E-reading Across the Digital Divide. Young Adult Library Services, 10(4) (2013, Summer), 38-41.

[8] Roos, B. (2012, Spring). Beyond the Bars Serving Teens In Lockdown. Young Adult Library Services, 10(2), 12-14.

[9] Knewton, Breaking the Prison Cycle through Education. Infographic. Houghton Mifflin Company, Inc. 2013. http://www.knewton.com/prison-education/.

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