Outreach to overlooked populations: Incarcerated youth

Thanks to guest blogger Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, Senior Librarian of Teen Outreach and Programming, at the Kearns Library in the  Salt Lake County Library Services system for this week’s post. Carrie previously blogged for us on her outreach to refugee populations

One invisible population available for outreach is invisible for a reason, they are incarcerated. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. In addition, to the highest rate of adults in jail, the United States has the highest rate of juveniles in jail.

In 2010 (the latest data set available) there were about 70,000 incarcerated youth in the country. Fortunately, the juvenile incarceration rate has been in decline since 1995 with a high of over 100,000 youth in detention. However, the rate still remains high in the developed world.

Some information about incarcerated youth:

  • African-Americans are five times more likely to be in juvenile detention than whites
  • The racial disparity also includes Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who are two to three times more likely to be in detention.
  • Large majority of youth are in custody for nonviolent or “status offenses” which are crimes such as truancy, curfew violations, drinking alcohol and other offenses that are only illegal due to age.
  • These youth will be released.

So in summary, you have a population incarcerated for fairly minor offenses which will eventually return to their lives. While this is a negative situation, it presents a positive opportunity for outreach, a place where library staff can be at the crossroads of youth’s lives.

youthholdingbookThe Salt Lake County Library began outreach to this population in 2012 through a bookclub. In partnership with the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services: http://www.jjs.utah.gov/  the outreach has expanded from one bookclub to four. The bookclub provides a way for discussing topics in a safe space, and introducing the youth to resources at the public library. These youth have mandatory reading times which helps prepare them for the monthly bookclub. Some detention group leaders have even tied the books into school subjects and other issues that the youth are working through.

Some of the youth have been able to take tours of the library and learn about how to utilize the resources and get a library card upon their release. One released youth proudly told a library staff that he now had a library card and was very excited.

In addition to the bookclub, there have been a number of library-related service projects the library has provided for the incarcerated youth. This benefits both the library who need help with certain projects, and the youth who are required to fill a certain amount of community service hours. Among the projects the youth have completed are assembling over 10,000 early literacy stars, preparing crafts for large events, and helping with event décor.

It can be difficult to perform outreach for teens, they are mobile, varied in interests and for many, their interest is not the library. Incarcerated teens are different. This population is not mobile and is literally a “captive audience” for library services. In addition, many of these youth struggle with literacy and social skills, which library services can specifically cater to, whether through a bookclub, book donations, or information about resources.

Juvenile detention centers are located all throughout the United States, some privately owned and the rest funded through the government. There is one near you with youth who may have never had the opportunity to go to a library or know anything about all the wonderful things contained there.


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