NYC Collective March 2008 Meeting and Salon Notes

Radical Reference, 2008-03-09, meeting held at New York City AIDS Housing Network office.

Rad Ref collective members Melissa, Julie, and Christy were joined by several organization/group representatives and about 15 other attendees.

Melissa offered an intro to Rad Ref.

Christy gave a report-back from the Grassroots Media Conference --
The GMC continued to attract independent journalists and media-makers, including many youth. Info from both RR workshops is now available online – media election guide and RSS feeds and organization. Visitors to RR table seemed familiar with RR and responded positively. Info about a mentorship project has been posted to the list.

Summary of discussion on library services to people who are incarcerated:
(Please note: out of necessity, this summary generalizes some of the discussion in order to avoid identifying specific individuals.)

- There are 3 main types of library service providers in correctional settings: units of the correctional institutions (“in-house” service, “prison librarians,” etc.); outside institutions like NYPL that provide service by working directly with the correctional institution; and providers like NY Books Through Bars that are independent of institutional frameworks (i.e., they provide service “from outside”).

- Points of clarification:
A “jail” is generally a county or municipal institution for shorter stays; although the average jail stay is 8 days, someone could stay as long as 3 years. Jail populations tend to be single gender but otherwise mixed.
“Prisons” are usually state or federal, generally involve longer stays, and are often divided by security level or other distinction (a prison may have a “gang unit,” for example).
Both prisons and jails may have libraries and/or library services, but libraries are more likely to follow more of a standard model in prisons, which may be obligated to follow statewide parameters. Prison libraries, including law libraries, are no longer federally mandated following a series of court decisions that terminated in 1996. They may be mandated in certain states’ state prisons, though.
Many providers of library services in these settings recognize a lack of necessary standards, even within a single state or other municipality. In New York State, however, every medium and maximum security correctional facility must have a library staffed by an MLS librarian and must have a book budget.

- Challenges are inherent for all library service in correctional institutions, and are difficult to describe to people on the outside. Correctional administrators prioritize security and safety. Library services require a physical presence – both of materials and staff – that might pose security risks from the POV of these administrators. Regardless of these perceived risks, research has shown that prison/jail violence drops as soon as reading material is introduced [participants did not cite specific studies – volunteers could check Reference Shelf and/or add sources?].

- Outside entities that partner with correctional institutions to provide service must find allies within the prison/jail administration. Aside from following administration rules, implementing services is often a wait and see proposition – try something, see if it works, document it and try the next thing.

- Because of the lack of standards, quality of service may depend on benevolence of individual administrators and/or geographic location. For example, prisons that are closer to a major urban center may benefit from proximity to progressive-minded organizations that sponsor in-house programs/collections. Prisons in rural areas are less likely to receive this kind of attention.

- Funding for library services comes from a variety of sources – often a combination of funding from the city/municipality/state that runs the prison/jail and the entity that provides the service. An NYC jail, for instance, might follow this over-generalized model: city funds facilities and personnel, NYS funds collections, and NYS Department of Education funds specific projects/outreach.

- Types of direct service may include: a bookcart that travels from area to area or a standing library. Resource guides for formerly incarcerated people returning to life outside – help connect returnees with services to counteract how likely they are to fail (guides include Connections from NY Public Library-- see site for links to similar guides). Baby lapsit programs for incarcerated parents. YA booktalks. Poetry workshops. Author visits. Reading groups. Literacy programs or other instruction.

- Example of an outside organization working with in-house providers: PREP, Prisoners’ Reading Encouragement Project
Organization began in 2003.
Works with NYS prison librarians to build prison library collections by collecting books and sending inventories to prison librarians for selection. Entirely volunteer-run.
Encounters technological issues – can’t get inventories to prison library staff electronically, because prison libraries usually lack computer access – and selection issues – relies on librarians' assessment of user needs to place titles.
Also hosts a conference on prison/literacy issues.

- Example of completely outside organization providing direct service: NY Books Through Bars
A books to prisoners program that responds to direct requests for books, usually from prisoners who have limited or complete lack of library services.
Restrictions on the kind of materials and content that can be sent vary from state to state and facility to facility.
Only authorized vendors (bookstore, publisher, can send books.

- Other points from discussion/question & answer: there was interest in the room in seeking an ALA resolution that would support library service and standards in every place of detention/incarceration.
Many incarcerated people didn’t start reading until they were locked up.
For-profit prisons: goal is to house more people to make more profit. Any room for services is sacrificed to make more room for more beds.