The Surprising Potential of a Prison Library

Article in the Boston Globe by Avi Steinberg who made a name for himself as a prison librarian.

People tend to see a prison as a monolithic institution, a place solely dedicated to locking criminals up. But many inmates experience prison in a more dynamic way, as a clash between institutions. And what I experienced every day was that, in the collision between the institution of prison and the institution-within-the-institution, the library, something constructive and potentially long-lasting was being formed.

Prison libraries aren’t miracle factories. The day-to-day was often far from inspiring. Glossy magazines and mindless movies were, for many, the main attraction. Pimp memoirs were among the most frequently requested books. And yet, even an inmate motivated by nothing more than a desire to watch “The Incredible Hulk” in the back room of the library was much more likely to come across something educational — a book, a program, a mentor — once he entered the library space. Just as important, this inmate was becoming a loyal patron of the library, something he could carry with him to the outside world, and perhaps pass on to his children.

In prison, I saw inmates literally run to the library. I wondered then, as I wonder now, how much we might gain from thinking ambitiously, creatively, how to harness the energy that currently fills this little institution-within-an-institution — and find ways to cultivate it more deliberately, to direct it over the prison walls and back into the lives of our neighborhoods.

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Prision libraries

As librarians we need to promote the benefits of libraries everywhere we go. We need to bring the library to the people where they are, using the technology we have now.

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