Books Behind Bars: An Inside Look at Correctional Librarianship

Career Blog

Published: March 30, 2018 by Evelyn Hudson

As students deeply entrenched in the library world, you’ve probably read about the recent controversy over books in New York correctional institutions. If not, let me catch you up. This past January, it was reported that inmates would no longer be able to receive packages except from a few carefully selected vendors. This would mean that families can no longer send comfort items from home, including books, and inmates only have access to the few books sold by the approved vendors.

Luckily, after a public outcry, the state put the new guidelines on hold until they can be further reviewed. In a related story, The New York Times reported that Texas prisons have a ban on 10,000 books. Some of the banned works include children’s books and humor titles.

These stories made me question what goes on at prison libraries. When a webinar invitation appeared in my email about correctional librarianship, I knew that was just what I needed to educate myself on this timely topic.

The webinar, entitled “Correctional Librarianship: Helping Change Lives One Book at a Time,” provided a look inside this unique field. Matthew Colvin, Senior Librarian at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and a 2006 SJSU graduate, began by explaining that correctional librarianship is not like what you see on TV. Even Colvin admitted he expected it to be something like “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Lockup.”

“A lot of what we do has a lot of overlap with what you would do in the public. It’s just we serve a very unique and special community,” he offered.

Colvin discussed the history of correctional libraries, which didn’t really exist in their current form until the 1970s. Until then, the only materials provided to inmates were religious or about self-help. Now, libraries serve as the “door to the court.”

“We are the primary means that inmates receive access to the court,” he expressed.

In the present day, correctional libraries offer pleasure reading, career training, educational testing and more.

“Today, I think, is a very exciting time for correctional librarianship,” Colvin said.

Colvin is able to create programming based on the needs of inmates with the goal of helping them prepare for success when they are released. His institution, Salinas Valley State Prison, offers specialized education such as welding training and life skills courses.

“We want to make sure [inmates] are going to be successful in making that transition from prison to real life,” Colvin added.

According to Colvin, as of January 10, 2018, there were 183,037 inmates and parolees within the CDCR system.

“We have a large population that we need to provide library services to and every one of those individuals has a right to access library services under our policies and procedures, so it’s a big responsibility,” he said.

On a daily basis, inmates follow a detailed schedule that includes library time. Colvin begins his day at 7:30 am to check the space for any security issues, share schedules with housing officers and complete an inventory. Inventory and security checks are completed three times each day.

During a library visit, inmates can ask for reference help, obtain court forms, use computers to find legal information, get books for recreational reading and more.

Colvin shared that correctional librarians gain skills in “communication, policy development and implementation, situational awareness, programming and employee/department relations.”

Positions at CDCR include library technical assistant, librarian and senior librarian. Colvin emphasized that several of these positions do not require any field experience.

If you’re interested in correctional librarianship, keep an eye on Handshake for new jobs posted by CDCR.

While Colvin admits the job does have its challenges, the position is very flexible, provides opportunities for self-direction and offers an extensive support network.

“Essentially you can make the job what you want. There is a lot of latitude to develop the type of librarianship that you are interested in,” Colvin related.

Does correctional librarianship sound like the career direction for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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