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Programming in Prison Libraries

by Trish Burns on July 28, 2016

A typical library scene—parents and children use Skype to read to each other, and people learn the basics of a foreign language, craft yarn into a scarf, and discuss basic financial concepts—but this is not your typical public library setting: It is a prison library. Surprised? While prison librarians all over the country have a unique set of challenges, they are also coming up with an abundance of programming aimed at assisting prisoners in learning lifelong skills.

During a recent tour of the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland, Michigan, with librarian Ervin Bell, I was intrigued to learn about the challenges and opportunities of providing library services in a prison setting. The facility houses Level I, II, and IV prisoners, who are convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses. Prisoners are entitled to six hours in the law library per week and may request time in the regular library on a strict schedule. While moving through each building, Ervin greets many men who are regular library patrons. Some of the men proudly respond in Spanish, as Ervin is teaching a basic Spanish class as part of his educational programming.

Similar to a public library’s, Ervin’s patrons are interested in financial literacy, legal research, nonfiction, and fantasy, and Ervin develops the collection to best serve the needs of his patrons. One of the biggest challenges he faces as a prison librarian in comparison to other librarians are the state-mandated restrictions on materials. Strict directives on what can and cannot be included in the collection must be followed for all types of materials.  Newspapers are especially tricky as any articles contrary to the mandate must be removed. A restricted publications list must be consulted before materials are allowed into the library. Legal databases are provided so patrons can do their own legal research during the hours they are entitled each week, but Internet access is not allowed.

Low literacy rates among prisoners also affect the services provided. Seventy-five percent of the state prison population did not complete high school or are classified as low literate.[1] Low levels of financial literacy are an issue as well, and Ervin hopes to soon provide a basic financial literacy class. Ervin has also served as a GED examiner for over fifteen years. Arts and culture is not forgotten—art and creative writing contests, along with movie nights and corresponding discussions, are also a part of library programming.

Preparing his patrons for the next step of community reintegration is high on his list of goals. A great emphasis is placed on programs specifically geared towards successfully transitioning prisoners back into society and, even more specifically, back into their respective neighborhoods and communities. These programs are usually conducted by department staff or contractors and tend to deal with issues such as alcoholism, substance abuse, cognitive restructuring, anger management, parenting skills, employment, and job skills. They focus on the fundamental personal issues and coping skills that will lead a prisoner to future success.

While the prison walls and the mandated restrictions are confining on different levels, the greater passion for helping a patron is the same wherever a librarian works. Ervin Bell clearly cares deeply about giving the best service he can and wants his patrons to be successful. So do we.

[1]Adult Literacy Facts,” ProLiteracy, last modified January 11, 2016.

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