Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Model Prison Librarian

With over 1.4 million people incarcerated in the US, prison libraries are often inmates best link to the outside world. Sixty-eight percent of the inmates come into the system without a high school diploma. In a good prison library, they can research the legal system, take classes, participate in book discussions, gain their GED, and check out a book for recreational reading. Educating them is not only a good thing to do; it’s essential. How good a prison library is depends on the state. The law does not specify how access should be provided, so states have various interpretations. Prison libraries range from institutions that are open every day to books-by-mail programs. Some states go way beyond the minimum and provide services that model public libraries. The American Library Association and ACLU also help fight for prisoners' right to read.

The Maryland Division of Correction prison library system is an example of a model library. This fall they have bought hundreds of copies of Fahrenheit 451 and organized dozens of reading and discussion groups thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Maryland Correctional Education Libraries acquired two bookmobile units that travel to each pre-release library, providing prisoners with access to forty-inch smart screens, computers, wireless access, as well as databases and books.

Avi Steinberg, a prison librarian in Boston, has just written Running The Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. He gives literary advice, teaches creative writing, and tries to gain the inmates trust and help untangle their damaged lives, just the kind of librarian you would want
in a prison library.

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