A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Serving the Incarcerated During the Pandemic

by on August 30, 2021

Libraries have been providing service to the incarcerated for many decades. While this past year has challenged the ability to serve the general public, many library systems continue to reach out to jail and prison populations. Here are examples from three large library systems that reflect the variety of creative programs and the outstanding efforts libraries are making in this work, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

St. Louis Public Library

St. Louis Public Library has been very active serving the local imprisoned population under Director Waller McGuire. St. Louis has provided paperback materials for many years both to the adult population and the Juvenile Justice Center. In years past they provided programming within the Juvenile Center.

One service, online resources, began at the request of the jail administrators. The library provided cards and accounts for prisoners to access on prison-issued tablets. After the launch of the program they created nearly 300 cards that were issued to prisoners in the adult Justice Center. Names and limited information were provided and library staff work mostly with the jail counselors. The cards are fairly active, but many of the tools available to other customers through our cards are screened by the jail’s security settings. Overdrive is heavily used, but unfortunately many training tools and other databases are locked out. One interesting obstacle to overcome was that the jail would not allow the standard, credit card style, plastic library card.  Instead, staff created paper cards for this project.

All of the physical outreach services came to a halt during the early months of the pandemic; however most were restored recently except for delivering physical materials to the jails. 

Salt Lake County Library

At Salt Lake County (Utah) Public Library, Director Jim Cooper believes that library services to the incarcerated inside the jail is a very important part of their mission. In fact, their Jail Library Service is part of their Community Engagement Department and they have provided it for over 25 years.

A simple agreement with the Sheriff’s Department provides library services inside the Metro and Oxbow jail facilities located in the county. The sheriff provides a small space inside the jail and pays the library a small stipend out of their commissary fund to support the operations. The library covers 80% – 90% of the costs and is responsible for all jail library operations, subject to safety and security protocols developed in concert with the sheriff. 

Physically located inside the jail facilities, the libraries are staffed by library employees. They manage and provide the collections which are subject to a few rules imposed by the sheriff such as materials can only be paperback, no stapled materials are allowed, only six items per prisoner (six books can only make a “small” fire), no books on bomb-making, and a few other restrictions. All materials that are returned are searched by library staff for contraband.

Prisoners request library materials through the digital kiosk located in their pod or unit with library staff providing readers advisory and reading lists. Library staff pull the requests and deliver the materials directly to the prisoners inside the housing units.The jail library staff create a variety of programs for prisoners. In addition to book clubs, they offer a six week Life Skills program, designed to provide prisoners with the tools necessary to successfully reintegrate back into society, and reduce recidivism. During the height of the COVID-19 disruption, library staff were prohibited from entering units or coming in contact with prisoners. To ensure the continuity of basic service and provide adequate safety protocols for library staff, prisoners and officers pivoted to delivering library materials to the units in disposable cardboard boxes.

Although library staff were unable to provide individualized services, prisoners have access to reading materials though library organized boxes containing a mixture of genres. They were delivered as a “mystery” box to lockdown units. Officers moved the boxes inside the unit and arranged for prisoners to pick them up. Over time, library staff took requests from an entire unit through the kiosk. This allowed prisoners to have some selection power over materials. 

Toronto Public Library

Toronto Public Library under City Librarian Vickery Bowles has taken some different approaches to supporting literacy. Since 2011 they have run the Storybook Parents (formally called Storybook Dads). They record incarcerated persons reading storybooks for their children. Each family receives an edited version of the recording, as well as a copy of the storybook with a personalized message from the parent. Each family package also includes a letter to the family welcoming them to the library for a tour as well as additional information about services. The program allows the participants to remain connected with their children, supports literacy and helps the parent serve as a reading role model. Each year, they record and distribute over 150 packages.

The library previously had community librarians working in the two local detention centers, providing programming support directly to clients. Over the past few years, they have offered basic financial literacy programs, book clubs/discussion groups, and creative writing workshops.  These programs have helped clients develop basic literacy skills. They also work with organizations supporting the recently-released population, such as John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society. They have offered a number of services including workshops, book clubs, and programming.  With the support of a community librarian, they have also offered digital literacy support (classes and one-on-one sessions), housing support, resume building and helping clients find employment.

The Toronto programs were temporarily suspended due to COVID, but are now being slowly reinstated.