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Librarians in Prison

jerilynne-stewart2b
Jeri Stewart

 

By Jeri Stewart
The author is a new Corrections Librarian at
the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Huntingdon.

We all know the triumvirate of libraries: academic, school and public. We’re all at least somewhat familiar with special libraries such as medical and legal libraries. But many of us overlook jobs in prison libraries.

Corrections Librarian, Library Assistant 1and Library Assistant 2 are the state job titles.  With a Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) recommended salary of $37,763 for a new full-time librarian, the entry level salary of $45, 692 for a Corrections Librarian is quite reasonable.  The position requires an MLS and two years of professional experience, including supervisory experience. Often there are only three or fewer candidates being considered for a position.  If you are looking for a professional job that’s somewhere between public and special libraries, read on! 

HOW TO APPLY
Go to the Civil Service website at www.scsc.pa.gov to read the job description for Corrections Librarian, fill out the application, schedule a date to take the test, and then go take it.

For any civil service job, you are asked to indicate up to ten counties where you would be willing to accept a job. Here’s a tip: make sure the counties you pick have a prison!  There are 26 SCIs and out of 67 counties, only 19 have a state correctional institution (SCI). Some counties have more than one.

Then, use your personal network to let people know you are considering corrections librarianship. The library community is generally open to sharing information about vacancies, and since these positions have, at least recently, been hard to fill, Corrections employees will usually put the word out as well.  But if no one knows you’re looking, they won’t tell you!

There is a central human resources office for the Department of Corrections (DOC), but it does not recruit for individual positions and cannot give you a list of open positions. The Human Resources people don’t mind if you call the prison directly, ask for HR and simply ask if there are any openings in the library.

When I was looking for a position as Corrections Librarian, I listed the maximum ten counties, but I was willing to move anywhere. Knowing where there was a vacancy allowed me to call Civil Service and add that county to my list by dropping a county with no vacancy.  I also called the SCI HR department to say I was interested and to offer my email address.  That way if they pulled the civil service list before I was added to that county, they would know to ask again for the updated list.  Typically, they have so few candidates that they are willing to request a new list in order to include you.

When you do get invited to an interview, you will get a ton of paperwork to fill out. Well, maybe not a ton but it sometimes feels that way.  There is a separate application for any Department of Corrections position and it is 18 pages long.  Tip: the application is available on the DOC’s website; fill one out and have it ready so if you go to more than one interview, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. You have to list your entire criminal history (and that includes speeding tickets, as I found out!)

Just be aware, the wheels of government may go ‘round and ‘round, but not very quickly! I had my first interview in December, my sixth was scheduled for June.  I did eventually receive offers from two SCIs.  The time from my interview to a conditional offer from one SCI was four months; for the other, it was about a month, and another month till I had a start date.  The medical tests alone take two weeks – not because they are arduous, but because you have to have two TB tests a week apart, and after the actual injection, you go back 2 days later to have it looked at.  A start date may be linked to when the facility can get you in to the training academy as well

WHAT WILL YOU DO?
Pretty much the same thing as any public library director: a bit of everything, except fundraising and programming. You will spend some time at circulation, do a bit of very general cataloguing, order books, and supervise staff.  There are basically two libraries: law and leisure.  The Supreme Court of the United States says inmates have a constitutional right to access to the courts, which the state can provide by either providing access to a law library or by providing attorneys. Pennsylvania provides the law library.  Leisure reading materials are funded by the Inmate General Welfare Fund, which gets its money from the profits on things the inmates can buy at their commissary.  It varies from SCI to SCI, but an informal discussion among librarians reveals most consider themselves to have adequate funds.  So, no fundraising, although you do have to budget.  The Education department would do the equivalent of programming, so no duties there.

In addition to the library assistant, you would have inmate workers who would do most of the legal assistance, shelving and even cataloguing and book covering for you.

Once hired, you have onsite orientation. I’m scheduled for a full week of it.  Then you go to the Training Academy in Elizabethtown for two weeks.  So there is a lot of preparation to help you feel settled before you are on your own in the library.

IS IT SAFE?
There are no guarantees, but for the most part, yes. As long as you follow the rules and be aware of your surroundings, you should be fine. Inmates like to use the library and are not going to jeopardize their access.  The most I’ve experienced so far is an inmate raising his voice.  As library staff, we controlled the situation and also the correctional officer stationed outside the library was there in an instant to ensure nothing got out of hand.

Everyone will tell you: be respectful to all and all will be respectful to you. The Department of Corrections posts statistics on their website (www.cor.pa.gov) so you can look it up and see for yourself that there is little inmate on staff violence, and although the stats don’t give a lot of detail, most of it would be directed at the Corrections Officers.  So, be cautious, use common sense, but don’t be afraid of this job.  I was for a long time, until economic necessity led me to take another, more serious look at this career path. Other people do it, people older than you, people frailer than you, people in worse physical shape (and of course people younger, healthier, and about the same) – if they all can do it, so can you.

CAN ANYONE DO IT?
If you have a basic level of emotional intelligence and reasonable self-esteem, you should be fine. You also need the mind, if not the soul, of a bureaucrat because there are lots of policies and rules to follow.  If you’ve never worked in a prison it might seem harsh to say you cannot give an inmate a pen or a cupcake you decided that you didn’t really want after all.  But the rules are there for a reason, and violating even the smallest of them can eventually get you hurt or fired.

The people who should not pursue corrections librarianship are the gullible, the easily manipulated, the social workers who want to “fix” the inmates, the totalitarians who want to “punish” the inmates, and anyone who has a strong need to be liked. You can be friendly, but you cannot be friends with inmates.

HOW TO PREPARE (For an interview and the job)
You’re a librarian, so you might guess “read a book” is among the answers. The two most helpful:

Games Criminals Play” by Bud Allen and Diana Bosta (ISBN 978-0-9605226-0-6) – this is excellent for anyone working in any job in a prison. It gives plenty of real-life examples of how inmates may try to trip you up, and how you should respond.  (It’s got a dorky cover but don’t judge a book by its cover!)

Library Services to the Incarcerated: Applying the public library model in correctional facility libraries” by Sheila Clark and Erica MacCreaigh (ISBN 1-59158-290-3) – this gave a good perspective on the actual job of prison and jail librarianship (the two are a bit different, as people in jails may not have been found guilty yet and tend to be resident a shorter period of time).  It also clearly expressed the authors’ genuine enthusiasm for what they do, which I found reassuring.

There are loads of first person accounts written by librarians and guards which give good insight. There are also numerous things specific to prison librarianship which may be more technical than you really need when you are just considering a career move.  You can also search for the topic on ALA’s website, they have a whole section.

While you are in the mood for reading, check out the Department’s website (www.cor.pa.gov). There’s a lot of information there, on the locations and history of the various SCIs.  You can find info on population statistics, inmate handbooks, policies, employment and benefit information, and lots more.

Besides the background reading, I reached out to past and present corrections librarians, who were overwhelmingly kind and generous with their advice. The quality of my interviews improved after I added networking to the mix, because I had a better understanding of the job.  You might be surprised at how many people in your professional or social network have a connection to prison librarianship.

Introspection is also important. I also spent a fair amount of time giving serious thought to what it might be like to work in a corrections environment, if I would have a problem with providing service to people who are guilty of horrible crimes. You have to figure out for yourself what your level of judgment is. It is important to understand that being in prison is the inmate’s punishment; therefore it is not the librarian’s job to punish or judge.  This may be the most important part of your preparation, not just because you’ll be asked in the interview if you can handle being alone in a medium sized room with 30 to 70 convicted felons and why you want to work in a corrections library.  It’s important because you need to know why you’re going into it, to be sure this is something you can do.

Finally, if you’re a librarian, then take an active interest in your professional development and join the relevant associations. I was already a member of the Pennsylvania Library Association and then joined the American Library Association.  I make a point of going to association conferences and networking with other librarians.  I made a useful contact with a county law librarian, who was happy to share her insight about the legal research part of the job.  Every bit of it helped me in some way, even when there was no direct corrections connection.

In brief, read, network, think, and associate.
Go ahead and give it a try! It’s professional library work with a decent salary and benefits package and makes a positive contribution to society by helping a group of people who may not have been library users before, learn to appreciate the library now and upon reentry to society.

Top Ten Reasons to Be a Corrections Librarian

    1. Job security: State correctional institutions (SCIs) must have a law library for inmate use, so 26 SCIs need a librarian with an MLS.
    2. Decent pay: Starting pay is $45,692 a year. (PaLA recommended minimum starting salary is $37,763, and many libraries pay well below that.) The Civil Service maintains a formal pay structure so you know what to expect now and in the future.
    3. Good benefits: Right now, there is health insurance on Day One (for as little as 5% of your biweekly pay), vision and dental after 6 months (free), a good amount of leave time (holiday, vacation, sick) and a really good pension
    4. Strong union: Having a union to negotiate our contract means clearly defined raises and other benefits.
    5. Good training: The Commonwealth will arrange a thorough onboarding, orientation, formal training at the DOC Training Academy, and you’ll have on-site support to learn the job before you have to run the library all by yourself. There is also an annual meeting of all the corrections librarians, which is fantastic for informal mentoring and just having people who understand the job and can be called upon when you have questions.
    6. No fundraising: While there will be some budget variation from SCI to SCI, most materials are paid for through the IGWF, a fund that is financed by the inmates themselves. You don’t have go out begging for money or host umpteen bake sales to keep your doors open.
    7. Professional work: Among other things, you can really devote yourself to collections development instead of just picking best sellers. You have a diverse population in terms of age, education, cultural background, mental health, and language. Ferreting out resources that they want and will read, and that will fill information needs they don’t even know how to express – that can be very satisfying.
    8. People to supervise: Chances are you’ll still feel busy and overworked, but you will have enough staff to get the routine things done and to allow you to focus on the professional parts of running a library. This gives you the opportunity to develop and mentor people in the profession.
    9. Make a difference: Corrections’ focus is on reentry – on guiding inmates to be functioning, working members of society when they have served their sentence so that they don’t become a repeat customer. You can make a difference by giving inmates respect as human beings, addressing their reference requests competently, providing fiction and nonfiction materials to spark their interest in reading, and showing them the value of libraries through the reentry books: job search/resume writing/interview skills. Because they don’t have internet access, here’s a chance to teach old school librarianship: how to find things without Google!
    10. Opportunity: You can do with this job what you will. Just keeping the law library up to date and ordering new books, supervising your assistant and inmate workers, and keeping an eye on the inmates who come to use the library will keep you busy full-time. But there is room to expand on this – if you are research-minded, you might study the effects of the library on recidivism, or misconduct or any number of things. There’s not a whole lot of current literature about this specific field and you could be a pioneer!

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Please note:  This article is not an official statement from SCI Huntingdon or the Department of Corrections.

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