Prison libraries are critically important

A new world opened when the door of my hometown’s public library opened and I walked through. I cannot remember that first time. Because my mother was on the library’s board, and a frequent user, I am sure I was quite young and visits occurred often.

Later, in junior high, I discovered on the library’s shelves, James M. Perry’s The New Politics: The Expanding Technology Of Political Manipulation, triggering a lifelong interest in political consulting and political advertising.

I imagine similar library discoveries ignited interests and even led to careers for many children of the baby boom generation from middle class backgrounds.

But not everyone is so fortunate to enter at a young age the door that opens other doors that lead to new worlds. That becomes clear through reading Glennor Shirley’s Journal of the Librarian Who Went To Prison For Money

Working in libraries serving correctional facilities in Maryland, Shirley encountered people of all races and backgrounds, not just those in poverty. But, all too often, people she encountered, pre-incarceration, led lives on the street, their lives straitjacketed by poverty, broken families, low literacy, poor social skills, and an inability to see the wider world. 

Instead of encountering Mrs. Eda Haas, my hometown’s kindly librarian, many encountered drug dealers, carjackers, discouraging or indifferent teachers, brutal police officers. Many masked their insecurities by bragging and making demands. But thanks to librarians like Shirley, many came away not only finding their correctional facility’s library a safe place but with the knowledge from reading that could help them to rethink their own lives.

I remember watching Shirley deliver a presentation on prison libraries at a Maryland Library Association meeting in 2012, when I was writing an article for Library Journal. Recently retired then, she remains active on library issues involving correctional facilities and reentry. 

She is not the only one either to leave paid librarianship but remain active. (The most enduring memory writing that article was the sight of retired New York Public Library outreach specialist Yolanda Bonitch volunteering to help deliver books to residents of a Rikers Island cellblock, many of whom towered over her.)

But when Shirley, an immigrant from Jamaica, started out working in the mid-1980s in correctional facilities’ libraries, it was more for making ends meet than commitment to uplift. Raising a family and unable to work as a full-fledged librarian because her British Library Association certificate was not recognized by American libraries, Shirley first took a library job with the Maryland Reception-Diagnostic & Classification Center to earn extra money while working in a non-librarian position with Howard County.Then she started working at the Maryland Penitentiary. 

What becomes clear from reading Shirley’s book is that being a librarian in a correctional facility is not for everyone. It demands toughness. (Not everyone rethinks their lives while incarcerated.) Indeed, she recalls the story of an older Christian educator who lacked that mettle and lost her position after confessing to a warden her rule-breaking assistance to an inmate.

Yet it says something about the penal system back then that the most “uncomfortable” Shirley felt in the library occurred when a new security chief took over, intent on proving dominance over others in the institution even if achieved through unethical means. That spurred her temporary departure from correctional librarianship.  

After completing her master’s degree in librarianship and a master’s degree in public administration and working in public libraries, she became state library coordinator. 

In an online radio interview, Shirley described herself as “the library doctor,” noting that a doctor treats patients without concern for the crimes they committed. She sought to handle requests in that same straight-forward, cordial, but not overly personal, manner. In her book she recalls that when some prisoners tried shocking her with outlandish reference questions, Shirley’s serious answers led those behind bars to treat her and the library more respectfully. When prisoners would express displeasure for the library’s lack of desired books, she viewed it positively because it showed their world expanding beyond the four walls of their facility.

To spur that outward focus on the part of inmates further, Shirley started a program in which inmates could read books to their small children. She told in 2003:

“In prisons [in Maryland], I would see kids in the visitation room and while adults are talking, the children are disengaged,” said Shirley. ”I always thought there should be something focused on education that could keep them occupied.” 

Concerned some inmates would hesitate to participate if their reading skills were low, Shirley got funding to obtain one copy of the book for the inmate to practice on and one for the child to take home. The program helped create opportunities to emphasize the importance of education, improve family bonds and even boost the literacy of some incarcerated parents.  

Perhaps the most important lesson Shirley imparts is the need to devote more attention to facilitating reentries, particularly for those individuals whose low levels of literacy and social skills prove barriers to employment. 

When named by Library Journal as one of its “Movers and Shakers” in 2003, Shirley noted that taxpayers then spent $27,000 a year imprisoning someone. “I prefer my tax dollars to go toward programs that will help the prisoner become a taxpayer later on.” Because internet access was denied to the general population in prisons, Shirley spurred development of a CD-Rom so people soon leaving prison could learn to search online for jobs, and how to write resumes and fill out job applications.

Shirley’s book often reads like a “journal” and sometimes in parts more editing would help. That does not negate the value of her message. The text is always straight-forward, honest and understandable, and reveals the valuable role libraries in correctional facilities can play in the lives of their users. 

Over the last decade America has been inching away from mass incarceration. But it’s unlikely to end soon. Shirley’s parting lesson is that even though the doors of a jail or prison may close, there is no reason that means a person’s mind must be locked up too. And that’s why libraries in correctional institutions matter. 

Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. 

Issues |Incarceration

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