Providing Library Services to Incarcerated Populations: Centinela State Prison [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 third installment, an interview with Sarah Ball of New York Public Library Correctional Services, 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 am very excited to share my interview with Jameson Rohrer. Jameson Rohrer is the Senior Librarian at Centinela State Prison in Imperial, California, which is part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He studied at San Jose State University for his MLIS and graduated in December 2013. He has worked in public, academic, correctional, and genealogy libraries in his thirteen years of working in libraries. He is originally from Indiana, but moved to California to become a prison librarian in September of 2013. He’s interested in many things including hiking, camping, traveling, reading lots of books, spending time with his fiancé and son, watching movies, beer, mead, whiskey (all in moderation of course), and studying Nordic history in his leisure time. His dream job would be to work as a librarian/archivist for a Swedish archaeology/history museum.

Stefanie Molinaro: You work as the Senior Librarian at Centinela State Prison in California. What brings you to this work? Did you know you wanted to serve incarcerated folks when you first decided to pursue librarianship as a career?

Jameson Rohrer: Well, I honestly fell into correctional librarianship by accident. I was in the middle of my second to last semester of my MLIS program through San Jose State, and saw that a Facebook friend of mine had posted that the prisons in California were hiring librarians. I had been wanting to move to the western United States for years, and thought this would be a great opportunity.  I wanted a job that would challenge me, that was secure, and most of all would provide me opportunities to grow as a person and as a librarian.  I honestly, had never even thought about being a correctional librarian when I started becoming interested in the librarian profession. I really didn’t know that much about prison libraries when I started either, but have learned so much in my four years now into the job.

SM: Could you tell us about your job? What does a typical day look like for you?

JR: Well, my job is three-fold if you will, since I am the Senior Librarian at the prison. We have one librarian, who also has a MLIS, and two paraprofessional staff members who are just as important and perform crucial functions. I am not their supervisor, but I do manage the physical spaces of the libraries themselves. My primary responsibility is to provide access to a law library for two yards of inmates at the prison. This is court mandated and takes up about 85% of my job on a day-to-day basis. My second responsibility is to follow a budget and order materials for the collections for the libraries on grounds to ensure they meet state rules and regulations that we must follow.  My third responsibility is to provide access to a recreational reading library, which contains fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, newspapers, magazines, and most recently we were the first prison in California to provide Playaway audiobooks for inmates to check out. Pretty proud of that, to toot my own horn.

My typical day starts with walking to the C Yard library, where I work normally and my first objective like many public librarians is to open the drop box outside and get the materials that have come back to the library.  I check to make sure that all of the staplers, and tools that are used in the library are still present and in working condition.  From there I will get the library setup for the inmates who will be arriving for the first session of the day. It’s court-mandated that inmates receive 2 hours of access per week to the library, specifically the Law Library collections, as staffing and resources allow. Inmates request access to the library via a paper form. So I schedule three, 2-hour sessions during my workday of 18 inmates at a time, with 30 minute breaks between each session. In addition, I do have three inmate clerks who work for and provide services to the inmates who are scheduled to come that day. In this library, all inmates must be scheduled to obtain access.  This library in particular is a Law Library and a recreational library in the same physical space, so I have inmates in there for both, which helps break the monotony at times.

Inmates will come in and conduct legal research with the Lexis Nexus stand-alone legal computers for whatever legal process they are working on. We have thousands of court forms available for legal documents they are preparing.  We also do have secondary legal research materials to help supplement the information on the computers.  I do provide instruction as they request, if they cannot locate something specific, or if one of the inmate clerks cannot assist them as well.  In addition, we are also required to provide copy and envelope services for inmates who are sending legal documents to the courts, or government agencies. This can be a headache at times, and is quite time-consuming and takes away from other services that we could be providing. However, it is required of us and so it must be done on a daily basis.  

I did mention that inmates in this library also come to check out materials from the recreational library collection. They can check out up to 3 items at a time for a period of 14 days, and can renew the items by a variety of ways.  This is the part of the job that I really enjoy since I provide lots of readers advisory, and just love talking to them about things they have read, or college classes they are taking, etc. We just set a record in October of this year, and check out a total of 619 items in a single month. The previous single month record was 482. One of the main reasons is that we have a unique service to the inmates through the library, that no other prison in California is currently doing. There are inmate tutors who work in the education areas with the literacy and GED teachers. So the library provides each literacy tutor, copies of the collection list, sign-up slips so we can make account on our ILS system, and book request forms, so inmates in the housing units can request titles off the list. This is important for several reasons. The first is that for the first time, inmates can actually check out materials from the library, without ever having to leave their cell, or visit the library in-person if they don’t want to. Secondly, this helps improve access to the library collections for inmates who have work schedules, college, or other programs they attend that conflict with the open hours of the library. Lastly, since we began this in March 2017, our circulation numbers have increased around 30%, due to checking out materials we already have, instead of having book carts in the housing units full of old crappy books that they don’t want to read anyway.

SM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I understand there are five libraries at the prison you work at. How accessible are the libraries to patrons throughout the day, and how often do you have staff at each?

JR: Yes, that is correct we do have five libraries on prison grounds, and for the first time since the prison opened in 1993. All of them are operational and open forty hours per week.  Four of the 5 libraries are open Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  The fifth library, which is the minimum yard is open from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The majority of the minimum level inmates on that yard are working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the day, so we decided to shift the hours for them to increase their level of access.  The four main yards to have a designated staff member to run the library Monday through Friday. The 5th and lower level library is ran by one inmate clerk and one officer.

SM: In addition to circulating books, do you also facilitate any programming or book clubs?

JR: We currently do not have any programming or books clubs due to lack of staffing, the collections not meeting minimum state standards yet, nor we do we have enough copies of any one book to do book clubs. We do support the self-help groups in the prison by having their reading materials and supplemental materials available for checkout from the library.

SM: What has been the most challenging part of your job so far? What accomplishment are you most proud of?

JR: The most challenging part of the job I would say is the bureaucracy of it all. California State prison system is a huge system and takes a long time for anything to be done and prison libraries are way down the totem of terms of importance and funding and staffing. My second biggest challenge would be that I am a supervisor of 5 libraries themselves but not the fellow library staff who runs them. It’s the way our job responsibilities were written years ago that we are supervisor of physical libraries spaces but not people. I would say my biggest accomplishment is two accomplishments. The first being that I’ve been able to obtain over 7,000 donations to add to our collections, plus my prison in California is the first to have Playaway audiobooks which is pretty exciting.

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

JR: I would say the biggest piece of advice is to pace yourself and be patient. Building collections and quality libraries in a correctional setting is time consuming and difficult for many reasons. Try to establish great communication with facility administration and outside groups so you can rely on outside groups for donations. Also, be prepared to say no a lot and to please to make sure to be part of all your surroundings at all times. It’s easy to forget you are in a correctional setting.

SM: Do you have any advice for making the idea of serving incarcerated populations more accessible and more widely accepted among our colleagues?

JR: I honestly struggle with this one. In general I think the library profession is proactive about trying to increase the level of access to its information and services. There is little support at state or federal libraries for correctional libraries at this time. I think some advice would be to ask yourself why is my library not working with county jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons within my service area? Secondly, I think many libraries and librarians are potentially scared of working with these populations but that’s an excuse by many.

SM: I recently interviewed a representative from Liberation Library, and the organization itself 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?

JR: I believe a large part of this comes down to funding and wanting to increase access without a plan, or the libraries themselves do not have any interest in increasing their service areas. Part of it is also pure numbers. We incarcerate more people than any other country on earth yet spend very little resources to help and try to change these people for the better. The traditional library setting outside of big cities does not have the time, staffing, resources or funding to provide library services to the jails and prisons in their areas. Lastly, I think this also comes back to correctional libraries not having legitimate support really at any level and are subjected to legislative changes that can disrupt possible collaboration.

SM: Is there somewhere our readers can go to donate books to your library?

JR: There are several locations.

First, we have an EveryLibrary petition where people can sign up to donate books with a donation form they send to me, and once approved they can send the books through the mail directly to the prison.

The second is that we have an Amazon wishlist with titles requested by inmates at the prison. For this people need to send me an email at so I can forward them the donation form. Once they fill the form out and include the list of titles they want to purchase off the Amazon list and send to me, then they can purchase the books and they will come directly to the prison as well. The link to the wishlist can be found here. 

Featured image “P6120335” by Caligula1995 is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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.

2 replies

  1. This is really interesting to learn about! I think it’s a wonderful topic to highlight. Enjoyed reading it. Great post!


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