Providing Library Services to Incarcerated Populations: New York Public Library Correctional Services [Series]

This is an interview series that will highlight the ways in which libraries and organizations serve incarcerated populations. You can read the first installment in the series, an interview with Jocelyn Nelson of Liberation Library, here. The second installment, an interview with Dr. Julia Skinner, a Rare Books Curator, can be found here.

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.

Today I’m so very honored and excited to share my interview with Sarah Ball, who works as the Correctional Services Managing Librarian at the New York Public Library. Sarah has been doing work in social justice, education, and arts for almost 20 years, these last 5 years spent with NYPL Correctional Services. Originally from Los Angeles, Sarah will feel like a real New Yorker when she hits her 10 year mark in 2018.

Stefanie Molinaro: Could you give us a brief overview of the services provided by the New York Public Library Correctional Services team?

Sarah Ball: New York Public Library’s Correctional Services team delivers book lending services to people incarcerated in NYC’s jails, we provide family literacy programming to incarcerated parents, English Conversation classes for language learners in jail, Video Visitation services between incarcerated people and their families at eight of our branches, a book discussion group at a federal prison in Brooklyn, reference-by-mail services to incarcerated people all over New York and beyond, library orientation for people nearing release at a NY State prison in Manhattan, and we publish an exhaustive annual reentry resource guide called Connections.

SM: How long have you been providing services to jails and prisons in New York City, and how did you as an institution decide to invest in incarcerated populations in your city?

SB: NYPL started serving people in jail and prison in 1980, the year I was born. Funding became available through the New York State Department of Education, attached to a mandate from the State for public libraries to serve their local jail – Rikers Island being the second largest in the country. NYPL employed a very dedicated librarian, Stephan Likosky, who created and sustained some of the programs that endure today, including the circulating book service and our Connections book. In the early 1980s, the environment on Rikers Island was, in some ways, remarkably similar to its state today, making regular library service a time consuming and fraught endeavor. Jails are not designed for rehabilitation or for education. They are not designed for humans. But NYPL was bound to serve the jail and there were individuals within the institution who were incredibly devoted to doing it well, with compassion and expertise. I would say that the work was being done quietly, comparatively. At this point in time, the Correctional Services department is very much on-the-radar, because of the light shed on mass incarceration, and because of the expanded programming that we now deliver.

SM: Could you describe your discussion groups? Is it a book club? What types of books are most popular? Has this program increased literacy and social skills?

SB: Our book club, run at the federal prison Metropolitan Detention Center, is a group of 8-12 men who gather voluntarily to discuss a wide range of titles. The structure is very informal, preciously so. We chat, we go on tangents, we debate and when we dislike a book, we rip it apart with criticism. They often suggest titles and I choose the rest. They are game for any genre or subject, but they have favorites. With fiction, I’ve noticed they tend to enjoy a male protagonist over the age of 40… that happens to reflect the demographic of the group quite well. With non-fiction, they love history, conspiracy, biography and much more. The program has definitely widened the scope of many of the members and pushed them to try books they wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. In some cases, I’ve pushed the members to read very long and difficult books, and I’ve also gotten a book snob to appreciate the joy of reading trash. They share their opinions with vigor and eloquence and I have no doubt that the group sustains them intellectually. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

We are about to begin another reading discussion group using the Shared Reading model, where all the reading is done together, aloud. We’ll be working with teen and adolescent women on Rikers, and the model is designed to respond to disparate literacy levels and a transitional population. There have been very positive outcomes for people engaged in the shared reading model, where the read-aloud sessions are akin to mindfulness exercises. In research done at University of Liverpool, England, shared reading participants were shown to experience stress reduction and a sense of belonging, among other positive outcomes.

SM: My specialization is in Youth Services and I’m especially interested in the Mommy & Me/Daddy & Me Family Literacy Program. Could you share a little bit about this particular program and why it’s so important?

Our Daddy/Mommy & Me program is one of our most well-loved offerings. We anchor the workshops in the five early literacy practices used in libraries across the country. We work with parents to talk about not only the ‘how’ of early literacy but the ‘why’. We discuss how a child’s brain develops, the parental bond that is strengthened through communication, and the ways in which parents can engage in a child’s learning remotely. We also talk about the specific challenges of parenting while incarcerated. We use the Sesame Street incarceration toolkit to guide conversation about discussing incarceration with children. After our facilitators demonstrate reading aloud and all the great storytime skills, the participants record a book of their choosing. We encourage silliness, funny voices, emotion, personalized messages, and singing. The parents do an amazing job conveying their love for their children through each book. The program culminates in a special Family Day where children are able to be with their parents for longer than the average visit. We put together a bag for each child, and they explore the books and other library goodies together. They get excited about taking their book home and following along with their parent’s voice.

SM: You also do a lot of work around reentry and publish an annual reentry resource guide. I know you also provide training to staff at your branches on this topic, but do you plan any programming specifically for formerly incarcerated patrons, and do you have any statistics on the positive impact that your services have had on incarcerated and formerly incarcerated patrons?

There is no doubt that NYPL serves thousands of formerly incarcerated patrons every year, even though we may not know it when we do. So many discussions have taken place about reentry programming and most of the time we, as an organization, opt for inclusive programming rather than programming specifically for formerly incarcerated people. That’s not to say that we haven’t offered specialized programs. We had an entrepreneurship series for formerly incarcerated people at our Business Library last year, we’ve offered post-incarceration one-on-one employment help, and we have some great public programs, author talks, movie screenings that address incarceration and reentry. But the needs of people returning home are so varied and some of those needs are met by the Library’s core services. Certain branches see so many formerly incarcerated patrons every day, the staff have become experts in reentry resources, just as staff do in response to an elderly patron base or patrons who predominantly speak another language.

Our statistics are severely lacking when it comes to tracking library use among formerly incarcerated people. There are privacy protections that take the utmost precedence, but there are also logistical barriers to collecting that data. My team and I have recently been discussing ways to measure outcomes among our incarcerated readers, but currently we rely heavily on thank you letters, anecdotes and occasional surveys. The letters are the best, and come to us with great frequency. I don’t think many librarians have the privilege of receiving such gratitude and love from their patrons like we do. It’s really special.

SM: I consider myself a prison abolitionist and am very open and upfront with my colleagues about the fact that I volunteer with organizations like Liberation Library, which sends books to incarcerated young people in Illinois. I feel like a huge part of implementing services to prisons and jails is getting the right people on board. Do you have any advice for making the idea of serving incarcerated populations more accessible and more widely accepted among our colleagues?

SB: If we’re talking about doing direct service, some might argue that we need all hands on deck – more people, more bodies – doing this work. Despite that need for capacity, my colleagues and I have been called elitist because we don’t accept every volunteer or colleague who offers to do this work with us. I’ll be frank in saying that we’ve chosen to decline help from those who are coming at the work journalistically, those who emanate a morbid curiosity, or those with a savior mentally. We work with people who think of others first. But also we look for great librarianship (and I don’t mean simply from librarians but from staff in all parts of the library), great customer service, and the ability to work in a place where logic does not exist. That may sound like a joke but working in jails and prisons requires one to face constant atrocity with constant professionalism and patience. For most, particularly those who have less personal experience with trauma, those are not normal reactions to atrocity, yet they are necessary to continue the job. The emotional processing happens after service is done, and that is where having the right team is imperative.

If we’re talking about getting the wider system on board, including those with decision-making power, I have found that more banal skills are needed. Staying organized is incredibly important to delivering your message to those in power. Good spoken and written communication skills are essential. Consistency is key so that when people ask you about the work, your answers are thorough, accurate and ready to share quickly. Make yourself an expert in the policies, culture and habits of the institutions in which you’re working. That will help you to be confident in your approach to pushing the envelope.

SM: I mentioned earlier that I volunteer at Liberation Library, and I recently interviewed a representative from the organization, which exists outside of the traditional public library setting. Why do you think so much of this work is happening outside of libraries, and do you think all libraries have a responsibility to serve incarcerated folks?

SB: I absolutely think all public libraries have a responsibility to serve people impacted by incarceration. They are our public, before, during and after incarceration. This country has spent decades designing a system of punishment that arrests, incarcerates or surveils one third of its population. Access to information is not only internationally recognized as a human right, but it is built into the mission of every library.

There is amazing work being done to reform and/or dismantle the carceral system and the punishment paradigm, and that work is politicized simply because jails and prisons are government institutions, and also because of the pervasive narrative that some people (“criminals”, black and brown people, poor people, trans people, women, etc.) are inherently bad or less-than. Despite the severity of any one person’s crime, there are rampant human rights violations (access to information being one of them) that are often postured as partisan issues, and that is where it becomes risky for “neutral” non-partisan institutions to take a stand. Right now, many libraries that do this work have found ways to take a position in practice, while retaining a public non-partisan platform. I can’t predict whether we’ll see a shift there. Personally, it would feel wonderful to see that shift. It would set an important precedent. Thoughtful and effortful prison abolition necessitates and makes room for education and community building – things that libraries do best.

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

SB: Be a good listener. Consider any and all privilege you have, and remember that even when you are not choosing to exercise power over others, you benefit from your privilege nonetheless. Study and work to become knowledgeable. That means sitting in court to observe the process, reading legislation, talking to people who are wrapped up in the system like families of those who are incarcerated, public defenders, community leaders, district attorneys and of course those who are still in jail and prison. And finally, of course, read books! You can start with the foundational work of Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, but there are more and more amazing books that will help contextualize the work.


Featured image is of Sarah Ball and her team at the women’s facility they serve on Rikers. 

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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