Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Send a book to prison

Guest Post Contributed by:   Kyle Nabilcy, Librarian,
Department of Corrections, Oakhill Correctional Institution, Oregon, Wisconsin

Think about how much you value your local library. I’m not surprising anyone who’s reading this post by saying that in our lives full of priorities, distractions, and competing interests, we love our libraries. Now imagine that those priorities have been radically shifted, those distractions warped, competing interests in large part redefined by someone who now holds the key to the room you live in. If you were in prison, and still had access to a library amidst all that personal turmoil, you’d use the heck out of it, wouldn’t you?

The problem, of course, is that prison libraries are often the most cash-strapped, resource-deprived, tough-luck libraries around. In Wisconsin, our state budget allows for fewer and fewer library material purchases for the department’s minimum, medium, and maximum security institutions. We do what we can, and some are luckier than others – the particularly adept grant writer, for example, or the librarian who has the ear of his or her purchasing supervisor – but it’s a struggle, let me tell you.

Prison inmate reading
Image from the EBSCO Image Collection
Interlibrary loan, which is a service that many libraries aren’t even allowed to offer for a variety of reasons, is nonetheless indispensable for those institutions that can take part. All Wisconsin correctional libraries acknowledge that ILL cannot replace proper collection development, but that doesn’t mean ILL can’t be used as a collection development tool. In fact, it’s one of our best. The traffic we see in institutions that offer ILL is supremely valuable in showing librarians and their supervisors what the population wants to read, and what expenditures would be most efficient in serving that population.

And let’s not overlook the most vital part of any library transaction: the borrower. In our case, inmate borrowers are displaying all the kinds of behaviors we want them to when they use the library properly, and in particular when they choose to utilize ILL. Literacy, respect for the property of others, respect for civic institutions, an engagement with the world outside their own wants, and one of my favorites, delayed gratification. Nothing defuses the “I want what I want when I want it, by hook or by crook” mentality better than being willing to wait for a book to come in.

Some libraries are hesitant to fill ILL requests from correctional libraries because they think the books will get trashed. Yes, our readers read books a little harder than most, but I’ve only had to charge my borrowers three times in 12 years, for damage to ILL books. Some worry that the books are inappropriate for a prison setting. Don’t worry about that! It’s part of our jobs to pay attention to that sort of thing, and sometimes a questionable book is being requested because we want to review it for appropriateness.

What libraries outside of the correctional environment should think about is what they always think about: serving the people. You all do the work you do because you value serving the public. Correctional inmates might not be out on the streets, but they’re a readership base all the same. Knowing that someone who isn’t in a blue shirt, or who doesn’t cash a DOC paycheck, is willing to do something for them – free of charge, expecting nothing in return – means more than you can understand to a lot of the inmates who use correctional libraries. Many have never used a library before, and might do so for the first time once they get out.

Help us make better citizens out of our inmates, and maybe earn yourself a new patron somewhere down the road. Send a book to prison.

Guest Post Contributed by:   Kyle Nabilcy, Librarian,
Department of Corrections, Oakhill Correctional Institution, Oregon, Wisconsin