A View from the Inside - or How I Worked so Hard to Get into Prison
posted March 13, 2013 10:43 AM by Julie Steenson
Back in April of last year, I was contemplating all the places where one might find librarians, and all the places we, as librarians, could choose to work. (Librarian or Batgirl?) Finding the right library niche is a personal journey. We can read about different kinds of opportunities, talk to our peers and professors, but I am finding that volunteering is the best path to trying on a new library for size.
I work in a public library - a job I got by volunteering there first - and I am learning a lot about small town libraries and how they function in their communities. Recently, I started volunteering in a men's prison library after a nine month journey to get there. You wouldn't think it would be so hard to get into prison...without committing a crime.
Early last spring, about the time of the Batgirl blog mentioned above, I started to read everything I could find on prison libraries. I read articles, books, and blogs. I watched prison videos. I read articles about recidivism and the role of programming in prisons, and I came to believe that prison libraries matter. I started sending emails, making phone calls, and meeting with correctional employees in early June, completed my criminal background check and volunteer training in November, and just a few weeks ago, I walked behind bars and barbed wire, and entered a prison library for the first time.
It is everything I imagined and everything I didn't. It is an amalgam of a law library, high school library, and public library, all rolled into one...but without internet access or windows. Grown men come in with hall passes and I take attendance like high school, and returned books are checked for contraband and notes, but the inmates' needs are very similar to the patrons at any library - they need information, access to legal materials, help with homework, and recommendations for a good read. I work with one civilian librarian and the rest of the staff members are inmates.
I spend one full day a week at the prison library (my one day off from the public library), and my family, friends, and coworkers have had mixed reactions to my new calling. Why do I want to do this? Isn't it scary? I believe in the rehabilitative power of libraries. 95% of the inmates will be released at some time, and a good prison librarian has the opportunity to be a positive influence, to make a real difference in the present and future lives of the incarcerated. And no, I am not scared. Yes, bad things can happen in prison (just like anywhere else), but I am focusing on the good things that can happen there and trying to be a part of that positive force. Let's just say I am on the Batgirl career path.