Opinion Post #3: Concluding Thoughts and a Compilation of Best Practices
This post summarizes what I've learned and concluded about library service outreach to juvenile detention centers. Additionally, I have compiled what I believe to be a fairly comprehensive list of best practices from professionals in the field, researchers, and current programs.
Before I started researching this topic, I believed that juvenile detention centers were like adult prisons. In turn, I believed that juvenile prisoners and their experience was not so very different than what is experienced by adult prisoners. What I did not realize, of course, is that juvenile detention centers serve as schools for those who have not completed a high school diploma. They even operate on a class schedule like teens on the outside. What this means is that young detainees spend a greater amount of time outside of their cells than adult prisoners, for whom books are the only distraction, escape, and means for education. This is not to say that juvenile prisoners "have it easy," because they certainly do not. Further, this is not to say that juvenile prisoners do not need the escape and entertainment that books can provide. Consider the following quote from Barbara Roos' article "Beyond the Bars: Serving Teens in Lockdown":
"'My Nana said reading will make the time go faster.' This bit of wisdom was told to me by a first-timer at our parish's Juvenile Detention Center. He looked to be about ten years old and was trying bravely not to cry. Not trusting myself to speak around the lump in my own throat, I just nodded and wrote down the titles he wanted to check out. Library school had definitely not prepared me for serving teens in a locked-down environment" (Roos 12).
Roos' anecdote showcases the heart-wrenching reality faced by youth in detention facilities. As their freedoms, friends, and family have been stripped away abruptly, they are learning--in some cases for the first time--what it means to deal with the consequences of their actions. They are finding out what it means to be totally alone. They are discovering a world with no options. Libraries and library services in detention centers can help give options. They can do this in a variety of ways--from being a full-time librarian or library media specialist working only at detention center, to being a public librarian who visits the center and coordinates efforts on a set schedule, to a school librarian who works jointly with a public library to deliver education and services, to a librarian who can only deliver materials each month. Regardless of their role, librarians should not paint themselves into a corner, supplementing only the educational process or reading for pleasure. They can also be there to implement (or assist in implementing) programs, provide instruction, facilitate discussions, and create connections to the community at large.
At the start of this project, in the mindset of juvenile and adult prisoner experiences being almost the same, I felt that just providing books to prisoners was a noble service with a great impact. It still is. But, I am now convinced that the mere presence of books in a juvenile detention center isn't enough. Sure, it's a start. But simply putting books into a vacuum is likely to do very little. The biggest reason for this, of course, is that the detention center staff have to be on board with the existence of library materials. Barbara Roos spoke of how the East Baton Rouge Parish Library actually had a partnership with a local JDC, including a physical space to house the collection. Librarians were supposed to come once per month to manage the collection and pass out books. Unfortunately, the matron in charge of the teens locked down the library and allowed neither teens nor the librarians to visit--for over two years (Roos 12). In a world that is meticulously governed, providing access to books and information is complicated--and deeply necessary. The books cannot just be there in a cage. Someone has to be there to fight for their right to be read and circulated. Someone has to be there to advocate for the necessity of reading for pleasure, for building information literacy skills, for teaching job hunting skills, internet search skills, learning to write, respect others, and socialize, and to learn about free community resources. Someone must be the voice of the thousands of children in juvenile detention centers. It's hard for books alone to do that job.
In sum, books are not a cure-all, but they are extremely important. As you saw in all three videos posted in this bag, access to books as a form of entertainment and information is crucial for incarcerated teens. Of equal importance is interaction with a librarian who can act as a link to the outside, and to their future. Through facilitated book discussions with directed questions, teens are able to connect books they have read with their lives, communities, and actions, and understand the opinions of others. They are able to connect with authors and invite them to speak to the residents. Introduction to technology is, of course, critical in modern society--librarians are well-equipped to show young people a world of information through search engines, databases, and e-readers. Librarians often act as community hubs, and are poised to team up with public or alternative schools, volunteer groups, community health groups, and more to help give these teens every advantage on the outside. They can help improve writing skills through a variety of creative methods that appeal to the reluctant reader and writer. Most importantly, we have to teach them accountability for their actions, consequences, and rewards. As is apparent, books are just one part of the puzzle. If we want to lower recidivism rates among incarcerated teens, we have to try to give them the whole package. We must give them all the resources they need: increased literacy, a solid understanding of technology, and ways they can find information and get help after they are released. Just giving them novels and hoping for the best is not unlike handing someone a calculus textbook and hoping they'll be able to build a bridge.
To do this, unfortunately, requires cooperation and commitment: from juvenile courts, juvenile detention center administrators and staff, public libraries, school libraries, and librarians. To be successful, it requires funding and dedicated space. It requires time and maintenance and constant attention. It requires flexibility, as one of the biggest take home points is that--as in all libraries--there is no one-size-fits-all model for a juvenile detention center library. It requires getting to know the population you aim to serve and tailoring your collection and programs to their needs. Further, not every outreach effort will be able to have a librarian or school media specialist devoted full-time to the collection at the detention center.
To that end, these are the "best practices" that I was able to gather during the course of my research. These can be taken as a whole for the 'ideal' scenario, or individually to mix and match what works best for each detention center and outreach participant:
• Build a close partnership with your local juvenile court, judges, and juvenile detention center administration (Fenster-Sparber 31). You can only provide services because they are letting you, and you have to fit in whatever you want to do around their schedule. Therefore, you must play by their rules. Most of all, you must embody their mission. As Jones notes, "When libraries partner with correctional facilities, we must understand the need to support the goals of that institution, even if they may conflict with our values (Jones 14). In short, if you want to be in their house, you do what they want. Your ultimate goal is to provide something the juvenile detention center is unable to provide without library services, and you will have to find ways to provide that service that fits in with the center's mission (Gilman 64). Further, by talking with the juvenile court system, you will be able to meet their goals for rehabilitating juvenile offends.
⁃ Create a service agreement between you and the facility (or, in some cases, you, the facility, and another party--like an alternative school) (Zeluff 36). This helps ensure that the director and other management officials at the detention center are on board with your plans and goals. It also lets them know that you plan to abide by their policies and procedures. These agreements should be revisited once per year by all parties involved.
⁃ Create a collection development policy. This will help restrict censorship efforts and will protect potentially controversial books. Your detention center will have many security concerns, which will present challenges for your collection. For example, some centers don't allow hardcover books, and most don't allow for any staples ("600 Pod" 410). Further, they will want to restrict books that hamper rehabilitation efforts, such as those that portray gang life in a positive light, teach you how to make weapons, or feature hardcore sex or violence. Since security pertains to you, too, you will want to follow those kinds of restrictions (Zeluff 36). Have a procedure in place for asking detention center management to reconsider items they removed (Jones 25-26).
• Make every effort to understand the demographics of your center's population. Like at every school and public library, the people you serve will have different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and varying levels of education, reading ability, and technological ability (Jones 26). Tailor your collection, programming, and instructional efforts to that population.
⁃ Perform a "Community Needs Assessment" (Zeluff 38).
• Provide books that are interesting to and engaging for your specific population (Parker 50; Herring 155).
⁃ Generally speaking, realistic or urban fiction and autobiographies depicting struggles that were overcome are well received (Parker 50; Roos 13; "Not Clowning Around" 40; Cheney, 2012; Vittek, 2011). Detained teens like reading books that feature characters they can relate to--characters that go through similar problems, look and talk like them, live in similar neighborhoods, etc (Burek-Pierce 69). They appreciate poetry, and other literature with messages of inspiration and hope (Angier 16).
⁃ Hold book discussions with focused questions. Don't just talk about what happened in the book, but themes or struggles in the book that are relatable to the detainees. For instance, "Why would someone volunteer? Would you ever volunteer?" This type of questioning helps teens consider the larger picture--society, the world, and how their actions affect others ("Partners in Anticrime" 32; Suellentrop and McLellan, 2001).
⁃ Provide opportunities to expose them to different kinds of literature--haikus, classical, etc (Wilhelm 408). Do not pigeonhole them and do not assume that they cannot or will not read outside of their comfort/interest zone (Roos 13; Vittek 2011).
⁃ Ask for resident feedback and book suggestions (Burek-Pierce 69; Herald 35; Austin 2012). This will make them feel valued and important--particularly if you follow through and purchase items they want.
⁃ Weed, weed, weed (Roos 13; Vittek, 2011). Get rid of outdated books, books that hold no interest, and those that are in bad repair ("Extending Library Services to Empower Youth"). The same goes with donations--if they fall into one of those three categories, don't accept them.
⁃ Do not use part of a library's circulating collection in a detention center library (books are often lost or damaged). Only use donations or books purchased with your budget/grant money (Vittek, 2011).
⁃ Try using the Accelerated Reader program (Parker 50-51). Regardless of your opinion about the program, when Parker used it loosely to incentivize reading and loosely assess reading levels (as there is usually little time to do so formally), results were positive.
⁃ Curtail the tendency to want to catalog and track books ("600 Pod" 410; Sweeney 41-52). Books don't come back all that often, and sometimes staff throw them out without your knowledge (Vittek 2011). It appears that trying to track your books is an exercise in futility when detainees are just passing them around among themselves. They will come back when they come back--or not. It's best to go with the flow. In regard to cataloging, most librarians who addressed this issue felt that it was best to separate new books (of course), and then separate books by genre or subject ("600 Pod" 410; Mitchell, 2009). Amy Cheney said that they often have very little time to spend in the library, so the easier and more intuitive it is to find a book they're interested in, the better (Mitchell 2009).
⁃ Eliminate due dates and fines. Checking out books and reading for pleasure should only be associated positively--there should not be consequences for wanting to read in this setting (Mitchell 2009). Keep circulation policies flexible (Herring 156).
• Implement programs other than book discussions (Gilman 60-65; Austin, 2012).
⁃ Author visits, whether in person or via Skype ("WCLS", 2011; Fenster-Sparber 32; Roos 13; Burek-Pierce 69; Herring 159).
⁃ Writing workshops--particularly with themes that can creatively connect reading, writing, and self-reflection (Wilhelm 408-409).
⁃ Library instruction programs and information literacy programs (Fenster-Sparber 32). Instilling a respect for library materials and librarians, imparting an understanding of the resources available at their local public library, telling them what to expect and what is expected of them in a variety of library settings, showing them how to use a library catalog and/or library databases, constructing a "welcome to the library" package upon their release and/or trying to set up a formal visit to the public library after their release (Roos 13; Austin 2012).
⁃ Job searching and application workshops as well as other job skills workshops (Gilman 62; Parker 51).
⁃ "Read to Me" workshops for those with children, to teach them about early literacy skills and the importance of reading aloud to their child (Jones et al).
⁃ Publishing zines with their writing and artwork ("600 Pod" 411; Fenster-Sparber 32).
⁃ Poetry "open mic" sessions (Fenster-Sparber 32).
⁃ Technology instruction wherever possible (Gilman 62; Austin, 2012). Technology presents a lot of security issues, and is expensive, which is difficult to circumvent with tight funding. Lobbying for Internet access and exposure to eReaders, iPads, and frequently-used computer software (like the Microsoft Office suite) is helpful for building literacy and relevant job skills (Czarnecki 24; Fenster-Sparber et al 38-41; Fenster-Sparber 32). Additionally, exposing them to blogging or journaling might provide a good outlet for their creativity and self-expression in the future (Czarnecki 24).
• Advocate for and strive to have a physical location for the library in the detention center (Gilman 64).
⁃ If possible, have return shelves in each ward ("600 Pod" 410; Mitchell 2009). This not only makes it easier for library staff to collect books for resolving in the library, but it also allows residents to pick up new books to read in between visits to the library.
⁃ Try to have a library space with windows, plants, comfortable chairs, and eye-catching posters ("600 Pod" 410; Mitchell 2009; Wilhelm 408). Residents do not spend much time in beautiful or sun-filled places in the detention center. Be sure, however, that the space is designed with an eye toward safety (Herring 155).
• Examine the historical privilege and bias of libraries and acknowledge inequities in services to minorities. Understand how this may affect this population's relationship to the library, and let it inform how you move forward in setting up an outreach program for them (Austin 2012).
• Properly train and prepare staff who will be working or volunteering in the detention center library. For the uninitiated, it can be a scary experience (Roos 13-14).
• Keep abreast of developments in the field and share your best practices and contributions. There are listservs you can follow and contribute to, and there is the Library Services to Youth in Custody wiki group to join (Herring 154; "Resources", 2012). This is a field where not much is written in the professional literature, and there is little to no formal training in school or otherwise (Zeluff 36-38). That means it's doubly as important for practicing professionals to share knowledge with each other--what works, what doesn't, budget, staffing, collections, classes and technologies, hopes and dreams.
For a comprehensive listing of all citations, please visit the link titled "Bibliography & Suggested Readings."