Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out

Nearly 1.6 million people were in federal or state prisons in 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. City and county jails are also full of people. Though there are increasingly vocal calls to reevaluate stiff sentencing for less serious crimes, this is unlikely to cause a dramatic decline in prisoners anytime soon. Meanwhile, each day, thousands return to their communities from some form of incarceration. What is changing is a growing realization that more public, prison, and jail libraries can better identify and serve the often significant needs of inmates or those prisoners who are returning to their communities. Not only are some libraries providing books, they are providing innovative programs and services, helping inmates and returnees to learn about work and employment opportunities, the arts, and to develop job-seeking skills.

ABLE MINDS In facilities (l.– r.) from Rikers Island in New York City to the Garner Correctional Institution
in Connecticut to Hennepin County, MN, librarians are helping inmates prepare.
Top photo by Stephn M. Lilienthal; bottom left photos by Darren Wagner Photography

It’s a Thursday in early June as a cart laden with books is pushed down the corridors of the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC), one of the correctional facilities on New York’s Rikers Island.

The library may consist only of a small storeroom of books and a cart, attended by Nicholas Higgins, supervising librarian of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Correctional Services Program (CSP); Luis Torres, a NYPL information assistant; and several volunteers, but library service to the inmates of GRVC is definitely welcome.

The CSP cart visits two units in GRVC, 17A and 17B. As the B side inmates are served first, an inmate in A admonishes B to hurry up. As B takes its time, the A side’s calls become more insistent.

After the rounds, as the cart nears the small storage room that holds CSP’s books and magazines, an inmate declares, “Y’all don’t come to my house. This is the only place I can catch you.” The inmate looks forward to obtaining National Geographic.

In Higgins’s view, providing library service to inmates and those returning from prison is fulfilling the democratic mission of the public library because it allows “a wholly segregated group of people” access to information that most Americans take for granted.

“There are definitely people there who want to better themselves but have not had the opportunity,” Torres says later. He notes that Rikers does contain inmates who are interested in doing little more than waiting for their day at trial or waiting out a short sentence (Rikers houses some ten separate jails but does not hold longer-term prisoners). However, many inmates, he thinks, have not spent much time in libraries, and CSP’s service provides a chance to start learning what the library can offer.

CSP can only reach a limited number of inmates, but Higgins says Rikers’s leadership is cooperative. Acknowledging the need for public safety, he and CSP make it a point to be “as flexible as possible” in working with corrections officials.

Since that day in June, Higgins has become associate director for community outreach for NYPL. Credited with expanding CSP’s service, he wants to move services to prisoners and returning inmates from the “margins” to being an integral part of public library service. Now, he oversees outreach to hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. He sees an opportunity to reach ex-offenders in shelters, noting the correlation that often exists between homelessness and having been incarcerated.

Forging public-prison cooperation

Nearly 1.6 million people were in federal or state prisons in 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. City and county jails are also full of people. Though there are increasingly vocal calls to reevaluate stiff sentencing for less serious crimes, this is unlikely to cause a dramatic decline in prisoners anytime soon. Meanwhile, each day, thousands return to their communities from some form of incarceration.

What is changing is a growing realization that more public, prison, and jail libraries can better identify and serve the often significant needs of inmates or those prisoners who are returning to their communities. Not only are some libraries providing books, they are providing innovative programs and services, helping inmates and returnees to learn about work and employment opportunities, the arts (see sidebar, "Arts on the Inside"), and to develop job-seeking skills.

In the view of Daniel Marcou, correctional librarian, Hennepin County Library (HCL), MN, public and prison libraries should be striving to ease the reentry of inmates returning to their communities. “From a community safety perspective, helping people [who are or who had been in prison] make positive changes is important,” Marcou insists.

FREEDOM TICKET Top: Hennepin County prisoners (l.) get assistance with job skills and literacy from librarian
Daniel Marcou, while Nicholas Higgins (inset) supervises the library program at Rikers Island (bottom).
Hennepin photos courtesy of Hennepin County Library; Rikers photos by Stephen M. Lilienthal

Hennepin County’s Freedom Ticket

Hennepin, like NYPL’s CSP and many prison libraries, has programs to instruct and help encourage inmates who are parents to read to their children. One goal here is to help prevent the children from following in the footsteps of their parents.

Likewise, Marcou believes it is important to address employment issues of returning inmates since being able to obtain and hold jobs is a crucial factor in achieving successful reentry, and helping former prisoners improve their literacy and job search skills is crucial to helping them get work.

A telling aspect of HCL’s program is Marcou’s branding of it as a “freedom ticket.” In part, he based the name on an anecdote in William Miller’s children’s book Richard Wright and the Library Card (1999). Wright, growing up in the segregated South, considered books to be “a ticket to freedom.” But there is more to the selection of the name, Marcou explains: “Freedom is probably the most valued word inside a corrections facility. I wanted to convey to the residents that reading and information can help to free us all from our past or places where we might not want to be in life. And the ticket, of course, is a library card so that you can use the library.”

This led to Marcou’s initiation of the Freedom Ticket blog, which showcases organizations and services offered by governmental agencies and nonprofits that can help returned inmates. Residents of Hennepin County’s correctional facilities receive a print version of The Freedom Ticket newsletter quarterly.

A welcoming library

An online orientation video (also available on DVD) assures returning offenders that they will be “treated with dignity and respect” by library staff. Taking advantage of HCL’s resources and services dealing with education, employment, and health can help returning inmates to “make positive changes” in their lives. A foldout map-like “Going Home” guide lists HCL locations and resources “people leaving corrections facilities” can access to obtain assistance with employment, education, housing, health, and family matters.

HCL in partnership with Goodwill Easter Seals also offers a program called “World of Work” at its North Regional Library to help ex-offenders with job searches, training location, résumés, and interview skills.

However, Marcou knows that many people who return from incarceration are interested in developing their own businesses, such as landscaping or cleaning, and raises this issue at the job workshops he delivers at the county and state corrections facilities. He has invited a community librarian to deliver a talk on self-employment resources and programs to residents of the county’s Adult Corrections Facility (ACF).

Marcou advises prisoners and those who’ve returned from prison to have a steady “day job,” if possible, but suggests that developing self-employment to provide several income sources makes sense in case of a layoff. He also considers self-employment to be “an enormously self-empowering option. Most folks who have hustled on street corners have strong transferable skills in terms of legitimate work and self-employment.”

Every week, Marcou and his coworker Renée Hasse visit the Hennepin County ACF to provide inmates with requested information and books and magazines as well as manage the collection at the on-site library facilities.

ACF reentry and education staff and volunteers assist facility residents with the use of the resource room to search for education- or employment-related information. The computers are connected to the library’s network, and filters have been adjusted to create safe Internet access to appropriate websites for reentry information needs. One of the many benefits is the direct exposure to the HCL website and increased awareness for the facility residents of all the online resources it has. HCL plans to provide more digital literacy instruction at the facility in the future.

San Diego reintegration

Hildie Kraus, branch manager of the Bonita-Sunnyside branch of the San Diego County Library (SDCL), shares Marcou’s concern about helping inmates and former inmates sharpen their job skills.

California’s overcrowded prisons are seeking to reduce their populations, which makes “rehabilitation, reentry, and reintegration” of the utmost importance, according to Kraus.

“A major component of all of these is getting a job,” she explained in a presentation to California librarians about her “Welcome Back: Ex-Offenders Rejoin the Workforce” training sessions held in summer 2011.

Kraus was working in SDCL’s El Cajon branch when a heavily tattooed man who’d been “inside” admitted he was unable to use a computer to obtain a library card. Inspired in part by that incident, Kraus started attending monthly Parole and Community Team (PACT) meetings sponsored by the California Department of Corrections to inform recent parolees about community services and resources.

Kraus’s own surveys of PACT attendees showed that they were eager to develop their job search, computer, and interview skills. Obtaining an in-kind contribution from SDCL, a $5,000 Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grant, and smaller grants from the library friends and the SDCL administration, Kraus established two month-long training sessions in July and August 2011.

The funds covered payments for flash drives, substitute staffing for Kraus and her assistant instructor, job-readiness trainers, and literature on reentry, résumés, and interview skills.

Still, the program remains something of a niche service. Expecting over 20 participants, only one person showed up for the first class. Eventually, between four to six people were participating regularly. A total of 22 people attended, some graduating from the first session, then returning for classes during the second session.

“Most were eager to learn,” says Kraus. “Many were consistent in attendance.”

Yet many participants would come when they could and Kraus, taking into account their different needs and skill levels, would provide the instruction they needed rather than falling back on her initial, more structured lesson plans. Kraus says “being flexible” in instruction is important.

Two job-readiness trainers spent hours coaching participants in how to be effective in a job interview. A high school intern videotaped the participants, who found it useful to see their body language and their responses to issues such as gaps in their résumés.

Participants in post-program surveys showed they all knew more about computers, had developed résumés, and had applied for jobs online. They felt more confident about going employment. Kraus notes the program cost only $11,000; maintaining a single person in a California prison costs nearly $50,000 annually. “So if one person from this program doesn’t go back to prison—you do the math,” she said, closing her ­presentation.

REENTRY, REENTRY, REENTRY The Colorado State Library’s prison program is all about reintegrating prisoners into society and was cited in Corrections Today for “groundbreaking” initiatives. Photos courtesy of Colorado State Library

Preparing to measure success

“It’s all about reentry, reentry, reentry—that’s why we do what we do.” insists Diane Walden, coordinator of institutional library development (ILD) for the Colorado State Library.

Walden credits Diana Reese, her recently retired predecessor, with focusing on improving quality during her tenure as coordinator of prison libraries. (See also sidebar “Colorado Standards.”)

Colorado’s prison library program is a unique collaboration between the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), which includes the state library, and the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), which administers libraries in state correctional institutions. ILD’s coordinator and the two regional librarians who advise state prisons must be trained in CDOC procedures and are actually housed at state prisons and expected to participate in facility operations, such as lockdowns.

ILD continuously audits prison libraries, whereas the American Correctional Association (ACA) audits the state’s prisons every three years as part of its accreditation process. ILD makes sure CDOC’s librarians are trained to carry out the policies, and its regular presence in prison libraries helps to provide prisons with well-designed libraries and to advance innovation. Adrienne Breznau, CDOC librarian at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF), describes the relationship between CDOC librarians and ILD this way: “I’m the boss of the library, and they are the boss of policy.”

Colorado’s ILD was credited recently in Corrections Today, the magazine of the ACA, with launching “ground-breaking initiatives” such as intranet training of prison library staff and an online library management system, which provides inmates with access to an online catalog but which is customized to prevent inmates from using features such as email.

Reese suggests Colorado’s state prison libraries are notable in part for using a “public library model.” (ILD is not involved with the prison law libraries.) As Breznau says, “Our patrons have the same information needs as patrons in public libraries.”

Walden recalls a review of prison libraries that showed a lack of reentry-related materials such as those addressing job search issues, improving family relations, increasing financial literacy, dealing with addictions—all things that help to curb recidivism. The response designed to meet these needs was branded as “Out for Life.”

While formal classes at CDOC prisons stress reentry issues, the Colorado State Library’s Walden notes not every prisoner likes or seeks out classroom learning opportunities, but they will use the library and can be reached that way.

Prison libraries, says Walden, are in a “unique position” to reach inmates through reentry materials and programming.

Equipping tools for financial literacy

Alongside the self-improvement tools and preparation these programs offer, there is an important self-protection element as well. DWCF librarian Breznau says many inmates can fall prey to online get-rich-quick scams. “My job is to turn them away from information sources from people trying to scam them.”

A positive solution is to provide financial literacy programs as Renée Robbins and Janice Chiaro decided to do a few years ago when brainstorming ideas for potential programs at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility (CTCF).

They arranged for a guest speaker from Wells Fargo Bank to address the inmates. Robbins added the Wells Fargo CD-ROM on financial literacy, called “Hands on Banking,” to the library computer loaded with reference and skill-building ­software.

At least 30 inmates started the program; approximately half were able to complete it. Inmates averaging 80 percent on all modules received certificates for completing the program. Robbins says some lost interest, but many inmates considered the program valuable.

“There were offenders who rarely used the library but who came to complete the program because they saw it as something they needed,” Robbins recalls. That provided an opening for library staff to demonstrate how the prison library could help them obtain information that would be useful to prepare for their release. “At every opportunity,” says Robbins, “we encouraged [the inmates] to use their public libraries” upon returning to their communities.

Robbins insists that a program such as the one implemented on financial literacy at CTCF is a boon to inmates. The prison library, she says, is the best place to offer such sessions because it is “open for anyone to use” and inmates realize their staffs “want to help their patrons succeed” once they leave prison.

Denver reaching out

Back in 2008, the Colorado State Library’s Walden had delivered a talk with then-ILD staff member Erica MacCreaigh and two others at a Colorado Association of Libraries conference on “Life After 20-to-Life” that urged greater public library programming aimed at people returned from prison. Melanie Colletti, a student in library science at the University of Denver, heard the presentation and found herself “amazed” at the scarcity of library services available to ex-offenders. She helped to create a resource guide for inmates returning to their communities to find services of use to them.

Working at the Community Technology Center (CTC) at the Denver Public Library, Colletti and a former supervisor, Megan Kinney, now director of library services at Community College of Aurora who shared the interest in outreach to ex-offenders, developed the “Free To Learn” (FTL) program. The program provides free space for former inmates who are often residents in transitional houses and helps them to learn computer and Internet skills that often are not taught in prisons. The program is staged just for returning inmates in part because some halfway houses require verification of the location of their charges. In such cases, FTL will call the halfway houses to let them know who is attending.

Colletti collaborates with librarians at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, delivering regular talks there about the Free To Learn program and other DPL offerings. She visits half-way houses to meet with residents and staff. One participant said, “I’m not comfortable in groups of people.” Colleti tells prison and half-way house residents to ask for her by name to help put them at ease.

“When I see people face-to-face and tell them it is okay to come to the library and ask for me, that helps to defuse some of that embarrassment.” says Colletti.

Colletti’s statistics from FTL’s first year show 78 percent of the women completed job applications during their sessions.

Breznau of DWCF stresses the need for partnerships between prison and public libraries. When inmates are free, she insists, they should be able to obtain “the same quality of help” for their unique information needs from public libraries that they receive from prison libraries and staffs.

New challenge for libraries

The Pew Center on the States’ 2011 report, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” notes that at least 95 percent of prisoners ultimately will be returning to their communities after incarceration. Policymakers are increasingly aware that “aggressive recidivism reduction is a smarter approach to curbing corrections costs and protecting public safety.” It cautions that besides a prison record, people returning from prison often have great needs stemming from poor education and lack of effective life skills.

Stronger efforts by prison and public libraries to help prisoners and people returning from prison to their communities can help them start to narrow those gaps. Glennor Shirley, retired coordinator for Maryland’s prison libraries, hopes public libraries and prison administrations and their libraries will work in partnership more. More librarians share Shirley’s views. Rhode Island Department of Corrections librarian Loretta M. Cimini in a presentation last year to the Rhode Island Library Association expressed hope that public libraries will better serve one of the most “under the radar” groups—released inmates.

Shirley declares, “Very few [public libraries] have proactively done outreach or programming in prisons. This is a lost opportunity to help inmates to reenter society successfully. Working in partnership, prison and public libraries can have a positive impact on prisoners, their families, and public safety and help to build stronger communities.”

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC

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Karen Lausa

Great article, highlighting very promising programs in prison libraries. As a community volunteer who has been working with offenders in Colorado facilities, I have tried to interface with Institutional Libraries, with little success. Through my development and facilitation of a book discussion group, there could be a wonderful partnership created between the state and the volunteer efforts in the community, but this doesn't exist. The Dept. of Corrections depends upon volunteers and aspires to strengthen volunteer programming...We need to discourage the individual silos in government and nurture collaboration. While evidence-based data may be available from volunteer efforts,by not having access to this information, the state may be missing outcomes that could be used to strategize future programs.

Posted : Feb 06, 2013 08:28


I thought I would toss in our wonderful Public Library located inside a Juvenile Detention Center in Arizona. It's a little different from this article but we are very unique, from being staffed with three people and two tutors, and having a large budget to provide books to youth.

Posted : Feb 06, 2013 04:17

Stephen Lilienthal

In the process of assembling this article, I spoke to many library systems and librarians throughout the country. Not every program or librarian made it into the final article. Unfortunately, most were unable to be included despite the interesting, sometimes, inspiring work they performed. But their contributions were helpful and showed that many public and prison libraries do recognize the need of people in prison and those who’ve returned to their communities. Several librarians and libraries deserve special mention. Jeanne Lauber, my former colleague in the District of Columbia Public Library system, and other members of the Deanwood neighborhood library conducted workshops on basic computer skills, resume writing, and how to find employment information for clients of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) that oversees parole and probation for the District of Columbia. CSOSA Community Service Officers Monique Williams and Emesha James requested help from the Deanwood library because they had an interest in establishing community partnerships to help “returning citizens” reintegrate into community life. Ms. Tanya Garcia Badillo, Assistant Director of the Long Branch (NJ) Public Library developed the Fresh Start program to provide people back from prison with computer and job search skills while respecting their need for confidentiality and special assistance. Ms. Badillo says the participants sharpen their skills on computers and in searching for jobs and also receive hope by learning about the resources of the library and within themselves. Retired Jefferson County (GA) library administrators Charlotte Rogers and Bonnie Boatright were managing their county’s Family Literacy Behind Bars program on a volunteer basis. They initiated the program in 2001 when it was funded by the Georgia State Library. Now, it is funded by a local energy cooperative’s foundation. Rogers and Boatright visit the Jefferson County Correctional Institution’s work camp and record CDs oft inmates reading books to their children. The recording and books are sent to their children. Hennepin County Library’s Dan Marcou had delivered a talk to the Polk County Library Federation in Western Wisconsin. Polk County staff then visited Marcou and observed HCL’s outreach operation to incarcerated Minnesotans, eventually publishing their own guide to social service and obtaining a LSTA grant to provide literacy lessons and book group discussions at the county jail. Although a funding crunch led to the dissolution of the county library federation, PCLF director Colleen Gifford had stated in summer 2012 that the “Books Between Bars” program would continue under the administration of the county sheriff’s office. Finally, inmates at the Richland (OH) Correctional Institution received permission to form a Friends of the Library Group. A constitution was developed and a slate of officers elected. Funding by the Friends Group enabled the library to purchase more materials for the library and literacy classrooms, a TV/DVD player, DVDs, and AV equipment.

Posted : Feb 05, 2013 08:33

Jackie Schector

Libraries and education should be a priority for the American prison system. If inmates can be trained to be self-sufficient after release, they will be able to live their lives free of crime. This is cost-effective for the government and, more importantly, the ethical way to treat criminal justice. Perhaps the bigger issue is the perception of inmates. If we choose to acknowledge the potential of each person in a prison, regardless of his or her crime or sentence, then we will give them the same learning opportunities afforded to non-incarcerated individuals. We as a society must value our members if we expect them to value themselves.

Posted : Feb 05, 2013 04:07



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