For prisoners, the library as lifeline

February 07, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

A couple of weeks ago, Glennor Shirley, Maryland's prison librarian, visited the Jessup Correctional Institution. In the eyes of many, and certainly in the red eyes of the state budget masters, prison libraries are not perceived as essential to the commonweal. Funds are more limited than ever, and the most recent budget snips ended evening hours in all prison libraries.

"I am still trying to figure how to manage," Ms. Shirley wrote Jan. 27 in a blog, Prison Librarian, that she maintains. "But when I want to get validation for my work as a prison library coordinator, I leave the office and visit a prison site."

She had arrived that day at the JCI by 9 a.m. By 9:15 am, she counted 61 inmates seated at tables and reading magazines and books, or browsing among the stacks, or asking questions at the reference desk. Some of the men asked Ms. Shirley when evening hours would be restored.

"The [inmates'] appreciation of the library and their dedication to reading and finding information renewed my determination to continue to fight for good quality service for the prison libraries that I coordinate," Ms. Shirley wrote.

Maryland's prison librarian is certainly on the job, with admirable commitment and belief in the value of her work, even in the midst of recession and budget crunch.

The state's prison libraries have lost all funding for new books. There's an Inmate Welfare Fund, but most of it has been used to provide inmates with access to court records and law libraries. So Ms. Shirley recently organized a successful collection of materials from the public libraries throughout Maryland, asking for their discards and leftovers: reference materials no older than two years, works by John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alice Walker and Patricia Cornwell; English dictionaries -- "We can never have enough English language dictionaries in the prisons" -- and current nonfiction on starting one's own business, self-improvement, relationships, health and psychology.

"The psychology is very popular," says Ms. Shirley, "because the men engage in a lot of self-exploration."

Ms. Shirley, a native of Jamaica, has been working in Maryland libraries since the mid-1980s, when, to augment the meager pay she received from her day job, she pushed a book cart on the evening shift at the old Maryland Penitentiary.

It was the first time she had been in a prison -- and the first time she had ever thought about prisoners and their need for information.

"Many of them had never read before prison," she says. "Many of them had never been to a library or seen a librarian."

Was she scared to be among men who had murdered and raped?

"No. They behaved more respectfully than many of the persons I encountered in public libraries. They were also grateful for the reading materials and for any questions that I answered.

"In a way, the library was their lifeline. They escaped through reading, and the knowledge they gained became a sort of power base."

Many who are within a year or two of release use library services to prepare for re-entry -- to get their GED, to improve their vocabularies and language skills. The recidivism rate in the United States varies, from 50 percent to as high as 67 percent in some states, and there are two main reasons for that level of failure: the employment challenge facing ex-offenders on the outside and the lack of preparation for re-entry on the inside.

In Maryland, as in most states, re-entry services remain woefully inadequate for the thousands of men and women up for release each year. And given that we don't invest corrections dollars for better outcomes, the very least we can do is keep the prison libraries well-supplied and adequately staffed. As a knowledge base and information bridge, the prison library is often the only resource the short-timer has.

Prisons are for punishment. Prisons exist to protect the public. But given that so many of their inhabitants eventually get out of them, they should be places of second chances, too.

Sometimes, Ms. Shirley says, the libraries host book discussions, and some become quite spirited, as did one on Bill Cosby's "Come On, People," at a prison on the Eastern Shore. There was vigorous debate between the older and younger inmates, and an opening of minds on both sides.

Glennor Shirley was thrilled with the discussion, and it provided another affirmation of her decision to take up for the library prisons -- to bring books, knowledge and information to a population others scorn or consider hopeless.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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