“Tuesday is my favorite day of the week!” says Daniel Marcou, corrections librarian, Hennepin County Library (HCL), MN. Every Tuesday, Marcou visits the local county jail to provide a variety of outreach services to his incarcerated customer base. “Every time I am tired, I just think about how fun this is,” he tells LJ. Many other public librarians serving local jails and prisons share his enthusiasm, noting an increase in positive behaviors tied to inmates obtaining library services while inside and a desire to seek library services for themselves and their families upon release.
An evolution of services
Marcou’s position is not a new one for HCL. “We’ve had a 30-year partnership with the [county] corrections department,” he explains, resulting in “a long, well-established relationship of trust and collaborative programming.” His regular Tuesday visits to the jail fulfill an average of 1,000 requests for books and information. Marcou has developed a variety of related programs.
HCL’s Read to Me initiative, established in 1998, “promotes family literacy by empowering incarcerated parents to connect with their children at home through reading,” according to the library’s outreach website. Inmates can record themselves reading a story, and then the book and recording are sent to the participant’s children. Read to Me encourages prisoners to continue reading aloud at family visitations and upon release. Marcou coordinates 25 HCL librarians who assist with the program, which received the American Library Association’s (ALA) Marshall Cavendish Excellence in Library Programming Award in 2004. Read to Me’s success laid the groundwork for Marcou to consider what else he could offer families awaiting the release of loved ones.
HCL applied for and received a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant for January-July 2017 to investigate new opportunities to “better serve families affected by incarceration.” The result is a community-based plan for author visits, art exhibits, and forums for prisoners, their families, and the greater public, Marcou tells LJ. Nora Raleigh Baskin, one of the authors slated for the series, will speak about her journey while researching and writing Ruby on the Outside (S. & S. Young Readers, 2018); local educators will have the opportunity to attend a forum on how incarceration affects school-age children in the classroom; and library gallery space will display photographs from “What Will Happen to Me,” criminologist Howard Zehr’s visual exploration of the lives and perspectives of children with jailed parents.
Additionally, Marcou created a film that explores the five tenets of early literacy for use in the jail system, along with a corresponding early literacy resource guide. The grant funds will help HPL expand its work into more than just the jail. “We can explore community treatment and reentry centers, [with the potential to offer] story times for caregivers in these locations as well,” says Marcou. “[We’ve] pulled data that shows a lot of families weren’t using our resources, they weren’t aware of our resources.” He sees this new programming cycle as a benefit to both the incarcerated and the general public.
Earlier in his career as corrections librarian, Marcou felt public libraries could offer more help with the reentry process. This led to the creation of the Freedom Ticket program, which initially included a blog to help inform those recently released, and a newsletter and a marketing campaign within the jail that highlighted all the library has to offer. The goal of the Freedom Ticket was to help inmates “create a relationship with their local library and librarian.” The newsletter and blog have since been discontinued; currently the Freedom Ticket consists of assistance with getting a library card upon reentry, book lists, and responsive resource guides. He distributes the “Going Home Guide” brochure, recently updated after five years, in the jail and throughout HCL branches and via state prison transition centers. An 11-minute Freedom Ticket video is available on the library’s website.
Other programming within the jail includes writing-based efforts such as book reports and reading journals that allow prisoners to earn library fine waivers. Marcou also uses philosophy books to encourage reflection and ideas for reentry success strategies. He notes that owing to the relatively brief stay of many in the jail, short-term programming options like this help establish a rapport.
Consistency and connection
Carol Cook, jails librarian with the Multnomah County Library (MCL), Portland, OR, has worked in the county jail system for 16 years. She started out teaching GED courses while employed by a local community college. “When the jails coordinator position opened up [with MCL], I jumped at it,” Cook says, noting that she is drawn to working with this population because “they are so enthusiastic and hungry for knowledge.”
In addition to selecting books for the physical collection in two county jails and answering reference questions, Cook facilitates Literacy Development Groups, each open to groups of ten to 12 inmates. “The literacy group is a very popular class,” she says. “I have a waiting list over two pages long. The inmates stay in as long as they are incarcerated.”
“I’ve found this model works best for me,” Cook reports, noting that “consistency is so important. Also, it takes time to build up trust. As long as they trust me, if I tell them to read Grapes of Wrath, they will.”
Cook chooses book titles, creates discussion questions pertinent to the group, and also curates a selection of magazine articles and quotes to supplement their discussions. Staying on top of all the prep work is a big part of her day-to-day life. “[The inmates] have more time to get through the reading than I do,” she explains, “so I have to make sure I keep up!” At press time, the literacy groups were reading the Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey (Candlewick). “I believe that reading a story about someone who has overcome obstacles and adversity can make a strong impression on you in a very organic way,” Cook tells LJ.
Cook also brings MCL’s “Everybody Reads” titles to the jails; for 2017 the book is Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), an LJ 2016 Best Book. “Giving the inmates the opportunity to read an Everybody Reads book connects them to other readers in the community,” she says.
Ready for reentry
In order to assist her patrons with reentry, Cook offers prep courses on the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC.) “I do the orientation and introduce the participants to the value of earning this certificate,” Cook says. In conjunction, she shares library and community resources related to job searching that are offered in partnership with the Change Center, part of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. Cook also emphasizes the “importance of [inmates] reading to their children and how visiting the library should be a regular family outing.” When new inmates join the literacy group, she gives them a folder of library details with resources on computer help, starting a new business, and upcoming classes. “I emphasize that the library has something for everyone in their family,” Cook says.
When men leave her group, they fill out an evaluation survey, many of which come back with powerful comments: “Reading has helped pass time for me, but more importantly it has helped calm me down and overall keep a better state of mind.” “[Literacy group] allowed me to open up more and trust in others; their opinions matter just as mine do.” “I would surely go into depression if I couldn’t look forward to going to this class.” Cook recognizes the empowering aspects of bringing library services to the jails, saying, “all voices are equal and valued.”
Discovering a passion
Fresh out of library school, Titus Moolathara, a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker, took one of the only library jobs available to him: heading a prison library. There he discovered “libraries are the most important place in a prison” after meeting people who used the resources and seeing “their lives turned around.” When he entered his new position with the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), he bumped into several citizens returning from incarceration who shared how much they appreciated library services, and he also heard disappointment about the lack of a library inside the city jail. This compelled Moolathara to run a circulating materials pilot program over three months in 2013, starting in a single housing block in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. “Everyone was using the program,” he notes, leading to expanded services that he now coordinates.
With the simple circulation of popular and genre fiction, along with specifically chosen high-interest low–reading level material and items such as dictionaries, Moolathara witnessed a change in the behavior of the inmates. “It’s a harsh environment,” he says, “so when you give them something, especially reading, it helps them escape their surroundings, [which in turn] encourages them to read more.” He saw his incarcerated customers working on improving their own literacy and received reports that altercations among inmates were decreasing. Traditional library services help “move their interest into other programs,” Moolathara says, including the Stories Alive program.
Stories Alive began as a simple storytelling initiative, providing picture books for inmates to read to their children during family visitation. Moolathara saw the possibility to add technology to the mix in order to make this an even more accessible activity for families with incarcerated parents. Via Skype, families can attend Stories Alive events from two neighborhood libraries, receiving free books at the end of their visit. The inmate and family members are registered for library cards if they don’t already have them. Story Alive’s aim “to support family literacy and strengthen connections between family members” proved so successful that the originally grant-funded project has been absorbed into FLP’s regular operating budget.
As one of the facilitators for Stories Alive, Moolathara notes that sitting in on the sessions can be emotional. “It can be hard to see the child be so excited to see their parent,” he says. The joy on the face of the children is so rewarding, Moolathara hopes that in the future Stories Alive can be expanded into state prisons as well.
As a department of one, Moolathara needed to find a way to be efficient while serving as many inmates as possible. “When we started the pilot, we knew we couldn’t provide enough time; we wanted to develop a way to keep the program going with minimal library hours.” The result is a training program in which select inmates, working through the jail’s jobs system, handle the majority of circulation. Now, “we visit the library every month to do collection development and collect circulation statistics,” says Moolathara. The inmates earn a small wage and build skills that will help with their résumés upon release. “Workers come to tell [me] that they get so much satisfaction from working in the library, it’s very rewarding,” he tells LJ.
A Hybrid position
The Salt Lake County Library Services (SLCLS) employs Vernon Waters to manage libraries in the Metro and Oxbow county jails. He works inside the facilities with a five-member support staff, also from SLCLS. “We have a budget, same as all of the regular public library branches,” he says. “We have an agreement with the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails…and contributes to part of my salary and provides the space for our collection.” According to a March 2016 article in the Salt Lake City Weekly, Waters helps maintain a collection of up to 30,000 titles, “two-thirds of which at any given time are [checked out by] prisoners.”
“We go directly into the housing units to put books in [the inmates’] hands,” Waters says, with his team working their way “around the jail completely about every two weeks…. Often we have to go cell to cell and pass the books through the cuff ports in their doors.”
According to Waters’s 2015 annual report submitted to library administration, a total of nearly 200,000 items were circulated through both the jails he serves, including audio players loaded with book cartridges supplied by the Utah State Library for prisoners who are vision-impaired.
The hand-to-hand circulation creates personal connections, leading to submissions of “kites”—letters with special book and informational requests—from the inmates on topics as varied as mind control and counterfeiting money to very specific queries. “Fiction and adventure kind of stuff (not fantasy),” read one. “Like someone that’s a good storyteller. Not ranchy or horsy [sic] so no Cormac McCarthy. Thanks.” Titles on religion and philosophy are also popular, and one memorable kite asked for a “list of books about ducks? Mostly scary duck stories if you have any?”
learning life skills
Waters facilitates a life skills class in the jail, designed to highlight library and community resources available to inmates upon their release. When participants complete the class—limited to a maximum of 16 persons and lasting “six intensive weeks”—they are given a library card that will wait for them with their personal property; if an inmate already had a card and had accrued fines, the library agreed to waive those charges. “We want them to be able to use the databases…shown to them in the class as quickly as possible,” Waters says. “I show them résumé resources, job sources, testing sites, continued education sources…they are always blown away.”
The library and sheriff’s department are considering bringing mobile devices to the jails to allow access to ebooks; Waters has high hopes for this service, he says, “especially if we can make the devices compatible with the resources from the library web page.”
Inmates frequently share their gratitude with library staff for the services provided: “I’m so thankful for the library. You guys are great! Thanks again for all you do,” read some recent feedback. “Reading keeps me sane—without you it wouldn’t be possible.” One comment stands out from the quotes submitted in Waters’s annual report: “Thanks for being there for all of us and filling our minds with love and beauty. It’s a wild ride between learning and knowing. Much love, you’re all out of this world superheroes!”
Establishing a Stronger Library Presence
The New York Public Library (NYPL) recently made headlines with the creation of a 1,200-volume library in the Rose M. Singer Center (nicknamed Rosie’s), the women’s facility on the campus of the Rikers Island prison complex. Sarah Ball, managing librarian of outreach services at NYPL, caught LJ up on how service has been going since the library at Rosie’s opened. “It’s quadrupled our patron base,” she notes, since the previous model of library service—book carts traveling through the units—did not allow for the same amount of access. Currently the library is open for six hours on Tuesdays, with funding being the main barrier to expanding open hours. “On a regular Tuesday, we’re seeing about 100 women, sometimes more. Half the facility comes one week, then the other half comes the next week,” Ball says.
Items in the collection are primarily provided through donations; the library’s website has specific guidelines for intake of these materials. Reading trends come and go at Rosie’s. “Right now we have a momentary lull in [requests for] vampire novels,” Ball chuckles. Library staff receive a lot of requests for cookbooks and genre fiction. Ball is involved with a few projects that allow for a small budget to supplement the donations, including a pilot for TeleStory, a video visitation program for inmates and their families on the outside that launched at the Brooklyn Public Library in 2014. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has publicly championed TeleStory, and Ball hopes that making this program a government priority will result in permanent funding with expanded video visitation locations across several NYPL branches.
NYPL staff offer literacy-based programming in Rosie’s library, including a weekly poetry session. In the future, Ball is considering incorporating the Call Me Ishmael program, a dedicated phone line on which book lovers can leave a voicemail describing a title that made a difference in their life; submissions are then transcribed and turned into an animation of typewriting while the voicemail plays in the background. The women could “tell their story about their favorite book, perhaps one read while incarcerated,” Ball says. Other buildings on the Rikers campus have seen the success of Rosie’s library, and Department of Corrections staff are curious about how to make this happen in other locations.
Advice from the experts
“Have patience” is the number one recommendation for librarians working with jails. Ball notes that new services “need to be the right fit,” and working with correctional institutes can involve a lot of vetting and some tedious, repetitive steps.
While the scope of some of the services profiled here may seem daunting, Marcou says that everything he’s doing is scalable, and he encourages librarians curious about adding or evolving their corrections services to contact him via his website. “Even if a library can bring in one person, it’s going to help their community understand that this is a real opportunity,” he says. “If you can go in and do one workshop, or one read-to-me program, it will help create a positive collaboration so you can grow and slowly build” additional services. He also notes that if it’s not possible to get inside a facility, public librarians can consider ways to make an impact working with reentry and transitional organizations, or with parole and probation offices.
Moolathara knows that public libraries are always seeking to serve the underserved, and the incarcerated population falls squarely in this category. Libraries are in a unique place to serve them. Anything you can initiate will result in gratitude.”
Renew Books, New Skills The Library Book Repair Project
In 2011, warden Rob Green of Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF), Boyds, MD, was looking to “reestablish the job shop and workforce redevelopment program inside the jail,” according to Clotilde Puertolas, program specialist, and Mary Ellen Icaza, public services administrator, community engagement, programming and learning, with the Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL). Green had heard of a book repair partnership between a correctional institute and a local library several years before, so he approached MCPL director Parker Hamilton to see what opportunities might work to benefit the inmates and support the library; the Library Book Repair Project (LBRP) was born. “Partnering with MCCF again was an easy decision to make,” Hamilton says. “We currently have an outstanding library at MCCF, and through another component of the [jail’s] Reentry Project, every person leaving MCCF receives a library card valid for 60 days.”
The LBRP started with MCPL bringing in a book repair professional to train several staff at the jail. In turn, those staff members work with selected inmates on book repair tasks that bring the materials back up to circulating quality. After a six-month pilot in 2012 with six MCPL branches sending items to LBRP, the huge success and obvious benefits led to the project’s expansion into all 21 system branches. MCCF pays for the inmate training through its Workforce Reentry Project, and each agency provides staff to facilitate and coordinate the effort. “Approximately two-thirds of the library system’s damaged books are repaired through LBRP,” according to Puertolas and Icaza; as of December 2016, the program has resulted in 2,635 books being returned to circulation, for a savings to the library of more than $200,000. Since LBRP’s inception, 435 inmates have gone through training.
The savings and sustainability benefits to MCPL serve as one half of the success story. Not only has the partnership further strengthened the ties between the two organizations, but the experience of the inmates involved in LBRP speaks volumes as well. In addition to earning a completion diploma and “good time credit” for their work, inmates are building valuable job skills that will come in handy upon reentry as well as in the future. “One participant mentioned that when he first looked at a damaged book, he felt it was ‘mission impossible,’ but when he saw that people were pleased with the final results, he felt a lot better for doing it,” say Puertolas and Icaza. “In restoring books, he believed that he was healing himself as well.”