February 16, 2018

Serving Newly Released Adults | ALA Annual 2016











A standing-room only crowd attended Literacy Inside and Out: Services to Incarcerated and Newly-Released Adults and Their Families at the recent American Libraries Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. I’ve been thinking about this issue—and serving under-served communities in general—since I was a public librarian. Once, a patron cautiously approached the reference desk, explaining that he had been recently released and needed assistance familiarizing himself with the library. At the time, I didn’t realize how a building full of large, imposing stacks could be intimidating for those who hadn’t been to a library before, or not for a long time.

This point was also emphasized by panelist Jacquie Welsh, who launched the Pathways program during her two-year residency at the Los Angeles Public Library. One of her successful strategies involved waiving fines for newly released adults. She found that many were scared of returning to the library for fear of having to pay fines from before they were incarcerated. Explained Welsh, “We want them to trust us.”

A 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker, Welsh admitted it takes time, money, and effort to successfully perform outreach to under-served communities, but the result—developing loyal visitors to the library—is well worth it. While not everyone who is newly released will mention it to library staff, Welsh suggests saying, “Thank you for coming in today” to those who do, reminding the audience that we should strive to be as welcoming as possible. Her presentation ended with numerous success stories, including those who completed literary courses through the Pathways program and are now enrolled in college.

outreach and more

Susan Woodwick, who oversees outreach for the Hennepin County Library (MN), shared her trusted strategies for serving newly released adults. Hennepin County is home to the city of Minneapolis and is the most populous county in Minnesota. Attendees learned that more than five million children have a parent who is incarcerated. Woodwick also reminded the audience that people of all ages reside in jails, including seniors, and that many in Minnesota serve for a short time—under a year. Even those with brief stays need assistance with reentry.

Hennepin County’s brochure “Going Home” (pictured above) provides information on local government offices, such as the public defender and probation center, along with a map of all library branches within the county. Each Tuesday, Woodwick and her staff visit local facilities in Hennepin County, including juvenile faculties that house children ages 10-17. Since they aren’t allowed to bring spiral-bound or hardcover books or items with staples, library staff carry the folded brochure along with paperback books that aren’t part of the circulating collection. Notably, Woodwick emphasized the importance of supporting staff, as constant outreach can lead to burnout.

Learners and Mentors

Leo Hayden, Reentry Director at the Orleans Parish Sheriff Office (LA), concluded the panel by providing details of the learning program at Orleans Parish Prison. (Sadly, the learning program was cut in early 2016 due to budget constraints.) Hayden refers to participants as learners instead of prisoners or inmates, in an effort to humanize those who already feel demoralized. The program consisted of exactly one week of comprehensive computer training: eight hours a day, five days per week.

Some learners had never turned on a computer before, and Hayden soon discovered that learners were helping each other with functions such as using a mouse and opening computer programs. This led to the motto, “Each One Teach Some,” where advanced learners became mentors for others. Since the program was implemented in 2010, recidivism was reduced by 40 percent. Another one of Hayden’s mottos is “Get Out and Stay Out.” At the end of the program, each learner received a certificate; something they can be proud of and show their families.

A short Q&A session followed, with some in the audience asking about safety. Woodwick advised going in pairs to visit local facilities (she pairs a librarian and a library assistant) adding that each facility should also have its own layer of security. Welsh added that facilities in courthouses are safe as security is readily available. Another challenge posed by the audience was how to perform outreach when the library is short-staffed. There were no easy answers to this question, with all agreeing that it is a challenge. Still, Welsh and Woodwick agreed that outreach should continue to be part of a library’s overall mission.


While I was live-tweeting this session, I was asked to recap my tweets for those wishing to read them later. Click on the thumbnails below to follow along.

newly_released_storify1newly_released_storify2 Did you attend this session? Have you had success performing outreach to newly released adults? Share your stories in the comments.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.