Providing Library Services to Incarcerated Populations: Liberation Library [Series]

This is an interview series that will highlight the ways in which libraries and organizations serve incarcerated populations.

The American Library Association’s Prisoners Right to Read asserts that

When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights.  Among these is the right to read. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of the right to read, to write, and to think—to intellectual freedom—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights should work to guarantee that the right to intellectual freedom is extended to all incarcerated individuals.

The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that at least 2.3 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated in local jails, state or federal prisons, juvenile facilities, or immigration detention centers. As a future librarian whose #1 career goal is to serve incarcerated populations, I wanted to take a closer look at the ways in which libraries and other organizations are providing access to information to those who are locked up, and share some of the models of service that exist.

I’ve had the privilege of volunteering for an organization in Chicago called Liberation Library for the greater part of this year, and today I’m incredibly excited to share my interview with Jocelyn Nelson. Jocelyn Nelson is a founding member of Liberation Library and has been part of the Steering Committee since February of 2015.

Stefanie Molinaro: Could you talk a little bit about Liberation Library and the work that you do?

Jocelyn Nelson: Liberation Library started back in February of 2015 by Mariame Kaba of Project NIA who recognized that young people who are caged in prison in Illinois need access to education. One way to get that education, to continue that thirst for knowledge, was through books and literature. So she put out a call for a group of people to come together and volunteer to dedicate their time to what is now called Liberation Library. Since 2015 we’ve sent over 1500 books to young people in prisons and jails throughout the state of Illinois.

SM: A lot of this work happens on your packing days–could you describe the packing days a little bit?

JN: We have packing days which are days for volunteers who live in the area to come together to support the work that we do. We receive orders from all of our young readers at the facilities that we partner with, and pull the books that they request from our library we have in house. We really try hard to make sure that the books that young people are receiving are the books that they want, that are of their choosing, and then we engage volunteers in pulling the books, and packing them. They also get to write a note to the young person, as a way to create a connection through literature, through reading, and we create bookmarks as well, so the books get sent to our readers and then they’re theirs to keep.

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A typical packing day at Liberation Library.

SM: You currently work with five facilities in the state of Illinois. How did you assess the needs of young people in youth prisons and how did you establish a relationship with the Department of Juvenile Justice?

JN: There was a lawsuit filed against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice in 2012 around the negative learning and educational conditions of the facilities in Illinois. So that’s what what really got Mariame’s attention, and she had an established relationship with the Department of Juvenile Justice, which was an essential component for us in really working with the department to identify facilities that might be interested in having this program, but also facilities that really had a need for the program as well. A lot of that came from and continues to come from a partnership that we have with the Department of Juvenile Justice.

SM: How have the teens reacted to the service that you’re providing for them?

JN: One of the challenging things about our work is that we don’t get to interact with our readers on a regular basis, but every so often we’ll go to a facility that we partner with or that we’re about to partner with, and meet some of the young people. We interact on a regular basis by seeing the genres that they like or the book titles that they like, and we try and stock our library accordingly.

A year and a half ago we also got to meet some of our readers at IYC Harrisburg to learn about the power of reading for them. One of our readers said that the book Tyrell by Coe Booth saved his life because he felt like he could really relate to that young person’s life. For us it’s such an essential component that these young people can pick the books that they want, that they are telling diverse stories by diverse authors, so that they can continue to have that thirst for reading–it isn’t a book that’s thrown on them, but it’s something that they want to read and they want to engage in.

SM: I really like that aspect of Liberation Library. I see a lot of people donating books that they don’t want to prisons, but the fact that they get to choose is crucial.

JN: Yeah, and those are our two biggest values: making sure that they get to choose the book that they want, but then also making sure that those books are theirs to keep. We’ve heard about some of our readers loaning their books to other people, and what’s really cool is you see trends, so sometimes maybe 10 people will ask for the same book, and I like to imagine that there’s kind of like a book club going on. Everyone wants to read the same thing, maybe they want to talk about it, engage with each other about that book, so it’s really fun to see the trends that come up as well.

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The library.

SM: What has been your biggest challenge as an organization so far?

JN: Keeping up with that same value; I think one of the biggest challenges is convincing all of the facilities that access to books of their choosing, whatever that book may be, is the best way to get young people engaged in reading and in learning. We have had challenges with facilities wanting to censor books and it’s a challenge that we continue to face, but we have been very clear about what our philosophy is. We see our readers as any other young person, and we want to make sure that the way we function is respectful of these young people. We are a prison abolitionist organization, and we believe that we as an organization should not exist because there shouldn’t be young people or any person locked up. We want to treat these young people in prison as any other reader, which is why we uphold that value so strongly. But it can often be seen as a big cultural shift for folks who work at those facilities. At the same time we have some facilities that have been really supportive of our work and see that what’s most important is not necessarily the content, but the act of reading and the act of choosing and the act of owning, over anything else.

SM: What advice do you have for librarians and future librarians who’d like to provide library services to incarcerated populations?

JN: Just because a young person is behind bars doesn’t mean that they should be treated any differently than the young people who might come into your library. I think it’s important to constantly check ourselves on that. Are we censoring? Are we shifting? Are we adjusting for these young people who just happen to be behind bars? We shouldn’t be doing that. Really just using your understanding of library services as a way to support books to prison programs and recognizing that these are just more readers and more learners who are eager to read and engage with literature in ways that you as librarians love and understand more than anyone else.

SM: I’m really proud of the fact that I volunteer at Liberation Library, and I’m open about it to my coworkers–especially if they ask about my plans for certain weekends. I notice that some people get uncomfortable when I mention the words “prison” or “incarcerated.” Do you have any advice for making the idea of serving incarcerated populations more accessible and more widely accepted among our colleagues?

JN: Part of it is for us to be okay with making people uncomfortable. I think the more open and prideful we are in serving and supporting incarcerated populations and the more we don’t get stopped by folks who might get squeamish or might shut down, the more normalized this work and advocacy can become. So I encourage people to engage and share in that work, but I also think what’s great about Liberation Library is that it starts with this philosophy that access to reading is a right and not a privilege. That’s something that a lot of people can agree with, and so starting with a common understanding and then widening it and saying “hey shouldn’t young people who are incarcerated have access to reading, too?” Expanding mutual understanding can help more people come together around the issue. So I say continue to normalize it by feeling comfortable talking about it, even if it makes other people uncomfortable, and recognize that we’re all here because we believe that access to reading is a right and not a privilege. Hopefully the next step would be talking about prison abolition, and access to books is a great place to start.

SM: Personally, I am a firm supporter of prison abolition now because of everything I’ve learned from Mariame Kaba over the years. I like to meditate on the idea that “hope is a discipline” as Kaba often says. How did you come to this work personally and what motivates you to keep going, especially in this current administration?

JN: I saw this question as I was sitting at my desk, and I looked up above my computer at a magnet of a quote from Mariame Kaba that says “do the work.” And that is something that definitely motivates me. I feel so fortunate to have been one of the people working alongside her, to watch how she led us into what we are now and the ways in which she motivates and continues to inspire people of all ages and walks of life. And I think the ways in which she welcomes all people at all stages of learning and understanding of an issue is a way to get people from all walks of life aligned around a common belief that prison should not exist. The patience that she has brought to the work, but then also the ways in which she asks a lot of people. When we started Liberation Library, she said if you’re not going to put in the work, don’t be here. That’s a philosophy that I believe deeply in too, if you say you’re going to do something, do something.

That being said, what brings me to the work is a passion for youth development and education, wherever that young person is at in their life. An appreciation for reading literature, and recognition that I had a privileged education. I also have become exposed to so many books and authors that I never knew about, and I feel like I’ve learned a whole lot from our readers.

Especially in this administration, yes this work is important, but this has been an issue during Obama’s time, it’s been an issue during Bush’s, Clinton’s especially, and it is an issue that is going to be prevalent no matter who our president is. And so I hope that this is a fight that more people can come to and join us in, in fighting the prison industrial complex, and recognizing that no person should be caged, and recognizing the way that we criminalize black and brown men and women. So I hope more people see that there’s a need for changing and overhauling our systems because of the administration we’re in, but I also hope that people recognize that this is a fight that people have been fighting for so long, and to then really look at the work that’s been done around prison abolition, to listen to the work of activists that have been fighting for so many years and use that as inspiration and as a springboard for moving forward, mobilizing and joining the movement.

SM: What are some of your most requested titles?

JN: Coe Booth is one of our most popular authors, so is the book Tyrell I mentioned earlier. Bronxwood, Kendra, those are all really popular titles. We have a lot of James Patterson and Stephen King fans. We also have a lot of Rick Riordan, and Harry Potter. Sister Souljah is popular as well. A lot of books that are either about coming of age or that are fantasy-based are really popular. Our readers either really want to hear the experiences of other young people they might relate to or they want to feel like they can be in a world other than their own.

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SM: How can our readers find out more about Liberation Library?

JN: You can go to liberationlib.com and sign up for a packing day (sometimes they get filled up quickly), but you can always go to our Amazon wishlist and contribute. We ask for the books that are only on the wishlist, just because we get specific requests and we want to be able to fill those. You can also donate to us or spread the word about the work we do and hopefully be inspired to continue this work in other states and countries.

Images of Liberation Library were taken by the author.


Stefanie Molinaro is entering the second year of her MLIS studies through Wayne State University’s distance program, with a focus on library services to children. She currently works at two public libraries in the suburbs of Chicago, in the children’s department of both. Stefanie is interested in the intersections between librarianship and social justice work, and some of her career goals include creating consciousness-raising programming for children and teens, and providing library services to incarcerated youth. When Stefanie is not working or studying, she enjoys volunteering at Liberation Library and hanging out with her cat, Lily. You can find her on Twitter at @stefmolinaro.

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