Public libraries provide invaluable services to those incarcerated and in reentry that will help them improve their lives

Public libraries aren’t just for checking out books and searching for information. If you haven’t discovered it already, you might be surprised to learn that public libraries offer an amazing array of services – for individuals who are incarcerated and those in reentry – and all of them are free.

Depending on the branch and location, public libraries may provide regular book distribution within jails and prisons and sponsor book groups for those incarcerated. They might help with things like literacy, technology and job search preparation at local branches for those in reentry (and others, as well). Some larger library systems, Brooklyn, New York City and San Francisco among them, have whole divisions dedicated to serving those who are currently – or were formerly – incarcerated. You should contact your local library to see what services they might provide.

Here are a few examples from librarians we heard from:

Brooklyn Public Library

According to Diego Sandoval-Hernandez, the supervising librarian for the Jail and Prison Services of the Brooklyn Public Library, his library previously visited six facilities every week. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’re down to only one, the Vernon C Bain Correctional Facility, an 800-bed jail barge anchored off the Bronx across from Rikers Island. New York City Library and Queens Public Library also operate programs to deliver books to the city’s jails.

“All three systems rely largely on donations, and only receive a small budget to buy books. But when we can buy books, we try and buy books that don’t tend to get donated, and which are largely driven by our patrons’ interest,” he says.

Five Brooklyn Public Library workers work on the program two days a week for a total of 15 hours. Like librarians in several other systems, the team also answers reference questions submitted to them in writing. These total a couple dozen per month, according to Sandoval-Hernandez.

Before the pandemic, the BPL also ran a book club, and one program included a guest author who discussed her novel at Rikers Island.

In addition to also distributing books in prison and answering Reference by Mail questions, Brooklyn’s neighboring NY Public Library publishes the annual Connections: A free guide for formerly incarcerated people in New York City. Connections includes information on everything from education and housing to financial assistance and preparing for a job search.

Queens Public Library

New York’s Queens Public Library offers some unique services. These include:

  • ID Assist – “This is a program for people impacted by the criminal legal system. They get referred to us, and we help them get an ID. The goal is for them to get a state ID, but sometimes they’re not able to. We can also help them get a municipal ID or refer them to an immigration specialist,” says Jill Anderson, the library system’s Prison, Jails and Reentry Services assistant director. “This is a very popular program and we don’t have the staff to keep up with all the requests.”
  • See You on the Outside – Librarians help people who are still incarcerated, but are preparing for reentry, create a professional resume.
  • Reentry Resources guide – Like the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library publishes a resource guide, Reentry Resources. Its librarians also help individuals on a one-on-one basis with any questions they might have about job resources in their own neighborhood.
  • Digital Connect Reentry Program – Anyone who has been formerly incarcerated and is willing to attend five classes can participate in this program, which was launched about a year ago and has had 26 participants. “We have two tech training tracks: a more basic and a more advanced. We try to tailor the tech assistance to what people need. Some things we’ve covered in the past are creating your own website, creating music, turning on a computer and accessing email on the phone. We don’t have specific job training beyond the tech training, although we do refer people to other library job training programs,” says Anderson. All participants receive a smart phone and a five-month data plan, both free of charge.

St. Louis and Gwinnett County library systems

Two public libraries that we know of have created training programs for entrepreneurs. The St. Louis Public Library began to offer its Small Business Launchpad in August and the Gwinnett County Public Library in Georgia launched its New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator in 2020.

Sacramento Public Library

Jennifer Harmonson, the adult services librarian, began book discussion groups at the Sacramento County Jail, located just two blocks up the street from the library, in late 2015. Friends of the Sacramento Public Library gave her 100 different paperback books. People chose what they wanted to read and talked about it with the group. The program began with the women’s unit but later added the men’s unit as well. Although covid shut it down, the program was relaunched in April 2023 with one group. Harmonson has led all of them.

The library also offers Reference by Mail. Participating full-time staff spend an hour each week and part-time staff an hour every other week. “They’re instructed not to spend more than an hour on each reply and make it a maximum of 10 pages double-sided. During January through July 2023, we averaged 105 letters per month,” Harmonson said.

On January 11, the Sacramento Public Library held its first Reentry Resource Fair at the Library Galleria. Representatives from more than 30 partner organizations answered questions about everything from education and employment to housing and transportation access. And librarians were there to tell attendees how they could support them in their reentry efforts.

San Francisco Public Library

The San Francisco Public Library has been a leader in the realm of serving those incarcerated. According to Rachel Kinnon, Jail and Reentry Services supervisor, the department was launched in 2018. But before that she was the full-time librarian at the city’s former Juvenile Hall.

Librarians bring a book cart into the city’s two prisons each week. They interact with those incarcerated, and each person can check out two books at a time and keep them for as long as they’d like.

“Reentry services is a growing part of our program. We do tabling at resource fairs, annually offered by the Archdiocese of SF., and meet with people one-on-one after they’ve been released to tell them how to use the library,” says Kinnon. “We direct people to a certain section of the library, known as Bridge at Main. It’s an adult literacy center that offers computer and tech classes.”

The SFPL received a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its Expanding Information for Incarcerated People Initiative, a collaboration with the American Library Association (ALA) to encourage greater access to information and resources for people who are incarcerated.

Part of this grant was devoted to producing a series of YouTube training videos focusing on how to create library services for this population. The videos cover subjects that include public library services, reentry services, reference by mail and law library services.

The initiative has also created an interactive map highlighting library services and books to prisoners organizations throughout the U.S.

In addition, the SFPL received funding to sponsor an annual gathering of librarians who work in prisons and with those in reentry. The second event took place last year. Both were held immediately before the ALA convention, and funding was available to offer people a $750 stipend to attend.

“We’re hoping to continue these,” says Kinnon. “People are really isolated and don’t know who else is doing this work. It’s growing though. Prison librarians are often under strict restriction about what they can say about their jobs, so they aren’t able to connect with other librarians who are interested. Our goal is to be able to create a network and support each other.”

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