Tuesday, November 14, 2006

California Library Association's 2006 Fall Report:

Prison Librarianship 101 was the hit of the party! Well, maybe not. But a full room showed up to listen to the panel of speakers and participate in the discussion. I sensed a hundred unasked and unanswered questions and comments, since so much collective "Jails Library" experience was in that room. We needed more time for audience participation.

It was informative to combine Prison libraries, County Library Services to Jails (our type,) and Literacy Programs. It increased our sense of shared purpose, even though we serve in a wide variety of correctional settings. Programs, ages and correctional environments vary, but the NEEDS are much the same.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Jails Librarian’s job satisfaction is very high. The sheer enthusiasm of Inmate Readers is the reason that Prison Librarians remain jazzed about the job, even as the funding fluctuates. A prominent Prison Librarian, Vibeke Lehmann, writes, “One can safely say that incarcerated

persons have a large number of unmet needs, which translate into a high demand for information, learning materials, and self-improvement resources; the library, in cooperation with other prison programmes, can play a vital role in meeting these needs. An inmate who wants to use his time constructively is likely to become an avid library user…. (Lehmann, p 28)

Our own experience with inmates in the County Jail affirms Dr. Lehmann’s statistic that Inmates use libraries very heavily—up to 10 times as much as people on the outside. Much of the job satisfaction and measurement of success is based on oral accounts that back up this statistic. Many inmates in our own County Jail from age 18 to 65 say they do not read “on the streets,” or “never enter a bookstore or library.” Yet in the absence of interpersonal distractions, or perhaps to avoid interpersonal interactions in the jail, nearly everyone reads! What more could a librarian desire?

Another measure of job satisfaction and success comes from the Prison or Jails Staff. Our Jails Librarian is frequently told that Inmate Behavior and Morale improves when Reading Material is regularly available. Conversely, the keenest disappointment for Library staff and the greatest provocation of inmate complaints are the two words: “Denied Access.” When over-stretched Deputies or misbehaving inmates cause the library service to be cancelled, everyone’s mood is affected and the complaint slips start to stack up. If we are repeatedly denied access, the Librarian’s primary duty is to advocate for the Inmates’ right to read by contacting Inmate Services. Deputies of higher rank than house deputies either force the lower ranking officers to monitor our visit or arrange for assistance in the performance of our task.

As one might expect, the dance with competing authority figures takes a toll at times, exhausting even the most resilient librarian. Though Dr. Lehmann asserts that Prisons are more focused on restorative justice, entailing higher standards for rehabilitation, she is well aware of the sound of metal sliders slamming closed:

The library programme does not function independently but operates within the larger prison environment, whose mission and security policies often conflict with the library profession's code of ethics and its belief in free access to information…. The work requires flexibility, patience, emotional stability, a high tolerance for stress, and a sense of humor.… Not losing one's cool is essential, since it may appear as a weakness that can be exploited. Stressful situations abound, since inmates are very needy, demanding and impatient….Support from the administration may not always be forthcoming, and the prison bureaucracy may seem formidable. Some administrative decisions may appear arbitrary. A sense of humor is essential; it relieves stress and defuses tense situations. Humor also improves relationships with inmates and co-workers and can reduce the inevitable barrier between security and programme staff. It helps a person see problems in perspective and avoid "burnout", an occupational hazard generally defined as a state of indifference or cynicism resulting from frustration and a feeling of helplessness. Being mentally able to leave work behind at the end of the day helps one stay sane. (Lehmann, 29-30).

This adverse environment, however, draws certain strong-willed and committed souls into its confines. The Whole Library Handbook mentions guidelines for behavioral performance that apply doubly to Jails Librarians. Due to the mental health and entertainment needs of incarcerated persons, nothing could be a more relevant repertoire of behaviors than the following: “approachability, interest, listening and inquiring, searching and follow-up.” (Eberhart, pps. 329-331.)

So jump into the Jails, fellow Librarians, your readers are waiting.

Lehmann, V. (2000) Prison Librarians Needed, IFLA Journal 2, pp. 123-128. Retrieved from http://www.ifla.org/V/iflaj/jour2602.pdf on October 30, 2006.