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Public and Prison Libraries: Important, Often Overlooked, Partners In Reentry
By Stephen M. Lilienthal
Published: 03/25/2013

Library a Earlier this month, the Benning Neighborhood Library in the District of Columbia hosted a workshop on “Reentry.” A staff member of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia provided attendees with information about how to deal with criminal records when seeking employment.

Public and prison libraries are becoming aware of how they can better help people returning from prison to integrate more successfully into their communities.

Libraries, both prison and public, can play vital roles in linking prisoners and those who’ve left prison with the knowledge to surmount information gaps. For instance, Glennor Shirley, retired prison library coordinator for Maryland, recalls having public librarians visit prison libraries to provide early literacy training to fathers.

In Colorado, the State Library’s Institutional Library Development (ILD) unit and the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) work closely to provide library services based on a public library model. Diane Walden, ILD coordinator, believes “it’s vital to to apply the core values of librarianship, employ trained staff, budget for materials, and provide services that meet the offenders’ needs.” She says the natural result of applying the public library model in correctional facilities is a focus on reentry, “which is the best return on investment our libraries can provide taxpayers.”

After an analysis identified the CDOC libraries weren’t keeping up with reentry needs, ILD helped to reorient the emphasis. Seventeen percent of the FY2012 book budget was devoted to acquiring reentry materials, and programs devoted to reentry are staged frequently. CDOC libraries are sharing more with inmates than information about anger management, employability, financial literacy, and addiction recovery. Walden emphasizes that “using the public library model teaches offenders that all libraries are a safe haven, a place to spend time with people who share your interests, and a public good to be supported.”

But corrections officials supervising parole and probation, librarians, and the returning prisoners themselves often give libraries little thought.

Shirley moderated a panel at the 2012 Maryland Library Association meeting urging public libraries to increase efforts to address the needs of returning prisoners. Antoine Payne, a former prisoner who now mentors at-risk youth in Baltimore, told the librarians how former inmates he supervised for a ministry had not been using a nearby library. He and the former inmates were surprised at the help the library could provide. Interviewed later, Payne says public libraries should do more to help returning inmates with job seeking and compliments librarians for providing greater help than staffs of many governmental agencies.

“Prison libraries need to preach to inmates, ‘Go to your local public library upon your release,’” insists Shirley. So should parole and probation officers.

One public library system that serves the needs of people in jail is the New York Public Library system’s Correctional Services Program (CSP), which provides library services to Rikers Island

But NYPL’s CSP does more, issuing a “Connections” book and posting it online, listing resources and organizations that can help prisoners reentering their communities. Thanks to fundraising help from volunteers and the community, Connections was printed this year even though closures of several correctional facility in New York City triggered a reduction in funding from the state department of education.

CSP’s staff visits several other city and state-administered correctional facilities in the city and makes monthly trips to Sing Sing prison upstate. CSP’s visits to Sing Sing are targeted to prisoners about to return to the city so library staff can tell them what changes have taken place in their absence and to promote library services.

Nicholas Higgins, formerly supervising librarian of the CSP, now NYPL’s associate director for community outreach, notes that CSP volunteers from the Brooklyn and Queens library systems help to provide library services to correctional facilities. Higgins is pleased that the newly issued strategic plan for the Brooklyn Public Library establishes a goal to “improve services” to the “incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.”

Expanded service is likely to be welcomed by correctional officials.

Dora B. Schriro, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, believes that public and prison libraries “can make a crucial difference in the lives of inmates and ex-offenders. Reading helps keep the population in contact with their community, improves their comprehension and enhances critical thinking, and widens their horizon. Similarly, learning to use leisure time in productive and pro-social ways is also important towards improving long term outcomes notably, recidivism.”

NYPL and Brooklyn are large systems, as is Hennepin (Minneapolis) County Library, which is noted for its Freedom Ticket blog and programs which address reentry issues, but even smaller libraries can serve the needs of former prisoners.

Tanya Garcia Badillo, Assistant Director of the Long Branch New Jersey Public Library, which serves a community of approximately 30, 000 resodents, developed the Fresh Start program to provide people returning from prison with one-on-one job search skills and computer instruction while respecting their need for confidentiality and special assistance. The library can provide job seekers with a list of employers that do not exclude people with past criminal offenses.

“We receive referrals from halfway houses weekly,” explains Ms. Badillo in an e-mail. When people have come back after ten or more years of incarceration, she says “they will usually request computer and e-mail training because they have either forgotten or never learned up-to-date technology skills.”

Interest is growing in promoting greater prison-public library cooperation. Public libraries often apply for Library Services and Technology Act grants to help fund their programs. Shirley contends that public library systems might consider applying for Second Chance Act grants administered by the Department of Justice to develop programs aimed at helping ex-prisoners to reintegrate into their communities. Likewise, correctional and non-profit officials whose agencies and organizations are applying for Second Chance Act grants should consider seeking out the public library as a partner when developing their proposals.

Stephen Lilienthal is the author of the recently published Library Journal article “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out.”

Other articles by Lilienthal


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  2. R2D2 on 11/03/2019:

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  3. banshidharsahu on 07/21/2013:

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  4. booking on 03/27/2013:

    Sounds good, until you see that Florida stripped their prison libraries of MLS supervisors and replaced them with inexperienced $9/hour workers with no benefits. (Not that this saved any money, as the old-time library staff simply slid into other roles under the Education flag.) These library assistants are now trained by correctional officers (!!) instead of regional librarians. FDOC's reentry programs aren't nearly as well run as the news puff pieces would have the public believe, and inmates are released daily with insufficient knowledge and resources. Sad to say, one ex-offender called me after I'd referred him to his public library to tell me that they were no help at all. Seems like there's room for improvement on all sides.

  5. Writing Prof on 03/25/2013:

    What a great idea! We need each and every resource available, and look at all these public libraries willing to step up and help. I suggest each one of us reading the article copy it and hand-deliver it to the head of our cities' library systems. Think what a help it would be if all paroled offenders knew they could find help like this, for free! prisongrievances.com

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