How Prison Libraries Can Make a Safer World

April 14, 2014

"At some point, 95% of the incarcerated will be released into the general public. They need programs and services to help them re-enter society peacefully and productively. Libraries offer that opportunity."

While most people prefer to avoid prison, librarian Julie Steenson '14LS wanted to get inside. Friends wondered if Steenson had a secret past. Her friends and family were initially reluctant to support her interest. Colleagues viewed that career path as the library job of last resort.

Steenson, a university and public librarian, had no interest in working in prisons before she began her academic career at GSLIS. When she read an article about Mother's Day at a women's prison, Steenson was moved by the loss and separation experienced by female inmates and their children. Children of inmates, especially female inmates, are often placed in foster care, and parent-child separation can have lasting effects on a child's well-being. Steenson began to study how libraries could close the gap that exists between incarcerated parents and their children. As a GSLIS student, she sought a volunteer opportunity in a women's prison.

However, prison initially did not want Steenson. She was told "no" many times by the local prison librarian because they were "too busy" to manage an intern. Undeterred, she talked to anyone in the department of corrections who would listen to her.

It would have been easy to give up, but she was passionate about volunteering her time and talents to an underserved population that many deem "undeserving." After "making a lot of noise in a positive way," according to the prison's volunteer coordinator, Steenson received volunteer training hoping the librarian would change her mind. She underwent background checks, although she did not have an assignment. Months later, she developed an idea to interview a local prison librarian for a LIS 475 Organizational Information Ethics class assignment, and Steenson was finally invited into prison for the first time. During their discussion, the prison librarian was convinced that Steenson would make a good volunteer in the library at the men's prison, a detour from her original goal of working in the women's facility. It took eight months of patient persistence and clever networking for Steenson to find her calling. In her independent study, "Prison Collections," she describes her experience:

There are bars on the windows. The sun glints off of rolls of barbed wire. Cell phones and personal lives are left outside. Everything and everyone is subject to search. Homemade razor blades show up in library books as forgotten bookmarks. Tattoo needles are fashioned from the heavy duty staplers in the library. Inmate staff who repair books in the library are carefully monitored and restricted. Tools are counted and locked up. The Internet hides behind locked doors and cages. Grown men ask to use the bathroom. Dress codes apply and are enforced. Patrons are restricted in their library access, either due to institutional scheduling or safety risks associated with particular inmates. Everyone is constantly watched. The library is subject to search and items may be removed at will by correctional officers if a threat is perceived. Fear and respect rule the environment. And the role of the librarian is to offer freedom.

"At some point, 95% of the incarcerated will be released into the general public. They need programs and services to help them re-enter society peacefully and productively. Libraries offer that opportunity," says Steenson. She believes prison libraries can reduce recidivism through education and literacy development, as there are numerous studies to support her claim. Working as an inmate in the correctional library can provide on-site job training by teaching technology and customer service skills. Steenson would like to see prison libraries increase their job training resources. Programming, word processing, and basic computer skill programs would help the incarcerated transition back into our technologically-driven society. In addition, she believes correctional facilities often overlook the chance for librarians to encourage safety and security in prison, by fostering positive engagement among inmates. "Engaging activities, such as book discussion groups, encourage tolerance and develop interpersonal skills." In addition, there is a "tremendous opportunity for the correctional librarian to grow professionally" since he or she needs to use skills that are necessary in legal, corporate, school, and public libraries.

Steenson has seen firsthand how the correctional library can improve lives and create a safe environment. "When I arrived, the prison did not offer any reader's advisory," says Steenson. "I made a concerted effort to fill the gap. Our impromptu book discussions led to tolerant and informed conversations that introduced new ideas and developed interpersonal skills. An inmate was inspired to start his own book group in one of the units, and I helped him with his proposal, which was approved by the warden." Circling back to what inspired her interest in correctional librarianship, Steenson also helped a parent connect with his child by selecting a book they could read and discuss during a visit.

Providing library service in a correctional facility has its challenges. While staff and inmates in prison live with a certain amount of risk, Steenson says personal safety was not her largest concern. Instead, the lack of access to technology presents barriers that are foreign to most librarians. "Our prison librarian had to be in a locked cage to use the Internet and no inmates could be present. The librarian complained that it was a hassle, so it was not used. As a result, interlibrary loan was not available," says Steenson. In addition, restricted and costly electronic databases and low digital literacy among inmates limit access to information. With libraries' increasing dependency on technology to provide services, correctional facilities must develop other ways to access information. While shrinking budgets, politics, and a tough economy plague all libraries, those in correctional facilities are often forgotten as taxpayers are reluctant to give "convicts a cent when there are other services to support," says Steenson.

"To overcome fiscal and resource constraints, prison librarians need to participate in creative networking. As a solo librarian, you cannot live in a vacuum," says Steenson. By increasing awareness of the prison's needs, Steenson solicited successful donations from several public libraries and created a Playaway collection for the women's transitional housing facility. Print materials were also provided for the men's and women's facilities. "The Playaways are a great example of creativity. Audio CDs are contraband, but Playaways provide audiobooks without compromising security." In addition, Steenson believes librarians should develop collaborative partnerships with correctional staff. To this end, she suggests that the American Correctional Association and American Library Association partner to update library guidelines that reflect the realities of the correctional environment.

The "balancing act of providing information that does no harm, while still serving the ideals of intellectual freedom, as well as respect for correctional and rehabilitative objectives," along with safety concerns and low pay makes being a prison librarian a challenge. "The librarian wears a body alarm and cameras are everywhere. Correctional officers are not in the library....While assumptions should not be made about personal safety, I feel safer in prison than walking out to my car alone at night," says Steenson. "Inmates are protective of their library privileges and are careful not to jeopardize them."

"On the other hand, the rewards you will receive in thanks from a neglected and under-served population do help a lot with your psychic income," stated Tom Maloney, the library services and technology coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, in an email correspondence to Steenson, discussing the low pay and less than ideal work environment. "Inmates are the most grateful patron population you will ever have as they know the library is a privilege, not an entitlement," adds Steenson. "Librarians need to look beyond the inmate's past and recognize that person's humanity. The library is the only safe harbor for the prisoners to ask questions in an environment that mimics the respect seen in the outside world. It can give inmates a view of their future potential. By improving their odds of doing well in society, I believe I'm helping to make a safer world for everyone."

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer