Sunday, December 26, 2010

Prison Libraries' True Value Lies Beyond the Reading Material

A very good essay in the Boston Globe Ideas section today by Avi Steinberg, who recently came out with the memoir, Running the Books about his stint as a prison librarian in the Boston area Suffolk County House of Correction. He writes about the periodic, well, probably ongoing, attacks on prison libraries, from well-meaning reformers who fear that the books will undermine the principle of punishment or might encourage prisoners to consider making a break for it or more fruitless appeals. Steinberg writes with excellent detail about the experiences he had as a prison librarian that lead him to the opposite conclusion. In his opinion, the true value of the prison library lies not so much in the reading material, as in the civilizing, educating locus of the place. The prisoners, who learn that the library is a haven that can make them feel like normal people for that short visit, run there when allowed, they are so eager to arrive.

Prisoners who are allowed to work as library assistants value the privilege, and take the leadership skills into life after prison. It was more educational that spending time in the recreation yard, and it was less formal than the classrooms. It was a public space, and often the only time these individuals had ever been exposed to a library. They were learning important skills to take with them after they were released, even if they only read glossy magazines. Steinberg's argument is the classic rehabilitation argument, but it is an important one, and he gives some very good details from his time at the Suffolk County House of Correction. Steinberg introduces the reader to Fat Kat, his head of circulation, and unofficial captain of the inmate prison work detail. Fat Kat's name describes both his physical appearance and his boss persona. He was mid-way through his sentence when Steinberg met him. Fat Kat declares, "This is where I'm doing my time," pointing at his seat at the circulation desk, "This is what I'm about now."

Kat had about three years of prison behind him, with three more to go. He had spent his 20s involved with guns, drugs, and gangs. As it turned out, he was also an excellent and dedicated librarian. He tutored his fellow inmates in reading and math. He encouraged young inmates to pursue an education. Kat capitalized on his invaluable street cred and, in the library, reshaped himself into a new kind of role model. He was trusted by all — both inmates and staff. When he was released from prison, he found a job as a community mentor and educator, and continues this work today.
Steinberg notes that if they could send even one person like Kat back to the neighborhood as a mentor, the prison was having a significant effect in reducing crime, not just reducing recidivism. If prison libraries became part of a plan to
...systematically develop these skills and values, we would be creating small, but potentially influential, cadres of post-prison citizens. If each prison library were to send even one Fat Kat back into each community, it would already have a significant effect.
Steinberg notes that most of the prison population lacks the education level to work in the prison library detail. But he hopes and believes that the library had a good effect on these prisoners as well. Again, he has a concrete example to illustrate. He introduces a 20-something woman, who has a 3 year old daughter living with relatives. She is lured into the library the first time by a new release movie feature, which Steinberg screened often for this purpose. But she soon came often to flip through glossy magazines, and eventually, look at books. This, Steinberg says, was the average library visitor: one who stumbled in and discovered the pleasures by accident. As her sentence was drawing to an end, this woman confided to the librarian how much she would miss coming to the library. She was pleasantly stunned to hear his reply that there were libraries in the outside world that she could visit for free. As Steinberg got over his own surprise that she did not know about public libraries, he also was excited to hear her make plans.
She left prison, and the library, excited to give it a try. And, she said, she would do for her daughter what had never been done for her: She would bring the child to the public library every week. Just as a prison ID card, stamped with her mug shot, symbolized her civic isolation, I like to think of her public library card as a powerful token of membership back in society. After hundreds of hours logged in the prison’s library, the thought of using a public library now seemed not only plausible to her, but second nature. After her time in prison it was the thought of not using a library that troubled her.

People tend to see a prison as a monolithic institution, a place solely dedicated to locking criminals up. But many inmates experience prison in a more dynamic way, as a clash between institutions. And what I experienced every day was that, in the collision between the institution of prison and the institution-within-the-institution, the library, something constructive and potentially long-lasting was being formed.

Prison libraries aren’t miracle factories. The day-to-day was often far from inspiring. Glossy magazines and mindless movies were, for many, the main attraction. Pimp memoirs were among the most frequently requested books. And yet, even an inmate motivated by nothing more than a desire to watch “The Incredible Hulk” in the back room of the library was much more likely to come across something educational — a book, a program, a mentor — once he entered the library space. Just as important, this inmate was becoming a loyal patron of the library, something he could carry with him to the outside world, and perhaps pass on to his children.

In prison, I saw inmates literally run to the library. I wondered then, as I wonder now, how much we might gain from thinking ambitiously, creatively, how to harness the energy that currently fills this little institution-within-an-institution — and find ways to cultivate it more deliberately, to direct it over the prison walls and back into the lives of our neighborhoods.
I think his insights about prison libraries also apply to how people use other libraries. It has always been less about the books than about the place, the services, the influence of the place. Whether we are talking about public libraries, university or law school, or high school, elementary school libraries, I think the same thing is true. The library is a place that teaches people to look farther, to learn, to be citizens, and to take part in a conversation among intellectuals.

The photo is credited to the Florida Department of Corrections and was located at, the post appears to include some discussion about the library prison. Partly he is complaining that by the time they figure out the books, their time for appeal has lapsed.

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