Prison Librarianship in a SLIS Context

Prison Librarianship in a SLIS Context

Kathrina Litchfield, a second-year SLIS student, first volunteered at the Oakdale Prison in Coralville 10 years ago. While working at Barnes & Noble, she met a woman buying multiple copies of the same book. While Litchfield rung her up, she asked what her plans were for the books and learned about the reading program the woman coordinated at the prison. Litchfield eagerly volunteered, but after a few visits and a change of leadership she lost touch. Until recently.

Oakdale Prison houses over 900 inmates, most of them male. It functions as an Iowa Classification Center which means that anyone doing time in the Iowa prison system first comes to Oakdale to be processed. Inmates with specific medical needs will stay in Oakdale—like pregnant women, for example—while others are transferred to a facility that will best treat their needs.

The reading group that Litchfield works with—she's now the assistant facilitator of the group she volunteered with back in 2003—consists of about 12 regular attendees: one of the men has been attending for over a decade. Almost all of them are part of a small group of inmates who are the highest-functioning, well-rewarded, and best-behaved. They all have jobs in the facility, many as tutors for other inmates. They are a well-educated, self-selected group of men and while Litchfield has a pretty good idea of why they're serving time, "we never talk about why they're there."

"There is always, always, always an interesting discussion, which does not always happen with book groups on the outside," lauds Litchfield. The group, however, is not without its challenges, though they are mostly financial. The previous book group supervisor left a trust fund to continue the group after her death, but that money has recently dried up. Litchfield has accommodated this with the help of SLIS Professor Joan Bessman-Taylor who has been attending the book group with Litchfield for the last 16 months. Bessman-Taylor helped the group partner with the Iowa City Public Library, making use of their book club collections. The kits include 10 copies of a book along with helpful discussion questions to get a conversation started. February 2013 was a stressful month, however, because the group had read all the book club books offered by ICPL.

Luckily, Litchfield received a Service Grant from the Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students (EGCPS). The grant gives money to University of Iowa students "for the purpose of conducting and participating in community service projects that are viable, relevant, sustainable and of impact to the community." The money that she has received from the Professional Advancement Grants Committee (PAGs) will be used to buy more books for the book group, which will enable her to continue her studies about the impact of and motivation behind the group participants.

She already has some theories as to why the men choose to participate even though they don't receive any obvious benefits, such as increasing their chance at earlier parole, for example. "Organized reading and discussion provide a pro-social environment that allow people to share their opinions more constructively. It also helps them gain a sense of empathy which makes dealing with empathy in real life more approachable."

"The prison system is not an issue as far removed from our lives as we think it is," Litchfield explains. "98% of inmates won't be there forever—they'll move into neighborhoods, their kids may go to school with yours: you can't ignore it." In the future, Litchfield wants to focus more on helping offenders transition back into the outside world. She's interested in the information barriers that some offenders face in accessing information to help them make a better life for themselves and their families once they are released. Third-tier sex-offenders, for example, have a life-time ban on public spaces where children congregate, which includes all public libraries and schools, which are also places where free internet and computer access are most likely.

When speaking about the participants in her book group, Litchfield's affection for them is clear. "A single incident that got someone in trouble is not the whole person. I don't know what they did—I don't care—but they are interesting people, and good people to me."

Litchfield aims to continue her research during the summer and work on her thesis this fall. While she laments the small field of prison librarianship as it makes it difficult for her to know where to go with her work, she hopes to be able to add what she has learned to help others in the future.