I volunteer my library skills in a prison, but I was not interested in the prison program in library school. I admired, from afar, those who collected books for inmates or advocated for those in the juvenile justice system. My students got me interested in this population through their research into our justice system.
When I taught adult learners returning to college, we read A LESSON BEFORE DYING which deals with the education of a death row inmate. My students were required to research a topic inspired by the book and formulate a thesis to research and write. Many chose to research the impact of education on recidivism. Semester after semester I read papers that included compelling research that showed education significantly reduced recidivism. I’ll never forget one self-proclaimed conservative telling me that academic research changed his mind about educating inmates and now he was now firmly convinced of its value (go, peer-reviewed research!)
After moving to Washington state, I discovered the amazing Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound which is an inmate-driven program that helps students achieve an associate degree while incarcerated. I began teaching information literacy workshops with other area academic librarians. We teach one-shots and full semester courses, just as we would on the outside. I have never worked with such motivated, engaged students. The students in our courses understand the intellectual, practical, economic, and personal value of their education in ways I’ve not experienced from my “traditional” students.
Offering our skills and services to inmates benefits so many stakeholders. It benefits inmates. It benefits correctional facilities which heavily depend upon volunteers to provide positive programs. It benefits the families and friends of inmates. It can benefit society when we contribute to reducing recidivism through education for inmates. This is not pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna wishing; this is a real contribution to bettering the world.
If you are interested in serving inmates, here are a few things to consider before taking the first step.
Do you need to be in control? How flexible are you? When you step inside a prison, you are no longer in control. The officers, administrators, and other prison staff are in control. This means waiting for doors to open one at a time. It could mean waiting 30 minutes longer than you thought for a program to start. It could mean the day of your program suddenly half of the attendees have to go to a court-ordered class and can’t attend. It could mean a variety of situations that all require you to be flexible, courteous, and patient. Don’t plan programs that require all to attend or that need to start and end exactly on time. Plan programs that are fluid.
You will find most prison staff are very dedicated to their work. Most are happy to answer questions and help you when situations arise that are out of your control. It took me weeks before I finally got the check-in system correct, but the officer in charge patiently helped me each week until I got it right. HOWEVER, you might need to wait until a situation is resolved before asking them questions. And please do not question their decisions, policies, and procedures. They are in place for a reason beyond your scope. That said, if you have concerns, there are means for reporting concerns and you definitely should. Thankfully, laws have been put into place increasingly to protect inmates from abuses of power. Usually the volunteer coordinator can help you report concerns.
It’s ok to admit you need to be more in control in order to feel comfortable. Just know that a prison setting might not work for you and end up frustrating you if your hour-long program suddenly has to be crammed into 45 minutes and your room is no longer available.
Are you expecting to walk on to the set of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK? Get that out of your head now, please. Anyway, the students I work with liken prison life more to the gossipy world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But the point is, do not limit people to a single story. I strongly encourage you to watch the TED talks given recently by FEPPS students.
Are you authentic? Ok, this sounds like a jerky thing to ask. What I’m getting at is: are you comfortable with yourself? And, can you own your privilege, then check it?
I don’t change who I am or how I serve when I work with inmates. I follow the rules set forth by Corrections and don’t wear short skirts, but I don’t dress down. And, I don’t talk down; I don’t assume experience. If you are uncomfortable, it will show. Shake people’s hands, if the prison allows it. Ask how their day went. Show interest. You know, the way you would treat anyone.
Are you a rule-follower? As addressed above, this is pretty important when working in a prison. I’m a boundary-pusher by nature but make sure I follow the rules to a T when working in a prison. When you volunteer in a prison you should have to go through volunteer training which will help you learn and understand the rules you must follow. When I’m at a loss I ask the inmates. They will often take the lead in helping outside folk navigate the procedures. For example, the other day the inmates were put on restrictive movement, which meant they could not move until given permission. I assumed I was under the same restriction until some students explained I was able to go.
What need are you serving? Before you come up with your million dollar idea, it’s a good idea to call the volunteer coordinator at a prison to find out what programs are in place that you could plug into or what programs they would want to implement but need resources to do so.
A few programs and tools currently in place to explore for inspiration:
- Prison Librarian blog
- ALA’s page on prison libraries
- ALA’s page on outreach to incarcerated and ex-offenders
- NYPL’s Daddy and Me program
- Prison Book Program
- Family Literacy in Prison
Where would you be most comfortable? It’s really important to be clear on this. I know I am most comfortable working with female inmates in an education setting. The educational setting puts some restrictions in place that make me feel comfortable. Do some research on prison culture and your local corrections facilities to make sure you are a good fit for the institution. Find out if violent offenders qualify to use volunteer programming if that is an issue for you (again, the volunteer coordinator can help you). Be sure you understand the differences in serving female versus male inmates. You will find institutions use research in that area to run their corrections program. The Washington Correction Center for Women uses research on female inmates to inform best practices.
Serving incarcerated patrons is incredibly rewarding. I’ve become a better teacher and librarian because of ways in which my students challenge me to bring my A game, because they always bring theirs. It is important to have a clear sense of what serving in a prison means for you personally and professionally before making that leap. It’s not a setting that will work for any librarian, but if you are a good fit it can be the opportunity of a lifetime.