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PA Forward: Social and Civic Literacy

Michelle Muro
Michelle Muro

by Michelle Muro

Orange is the New Black
Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, came to the Scranton Cultural Center on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 to talk about her book and discuss what it was like spending a year in a women’s prison. The sold-out event was part of the Lackawanna County Library System’s Matthew F. Flynn Library Lecture Series.

Over 1,300 people attended the lecture to hear Piper Kerman talk about the injustices and the need for reformation of the current criminal justice system, the importance of community intervention in at-risk children’s lives, and the work she is doing in prisons to help inmates when they are released. Ms. Kerman stressed that community centers and libraries have an incredibly positive influence on the lives of the people in those communities who are fortunate enough to have these types of institutions.

Ms. Kerman was delighted to hear that one librarian in Wayne County has been doing outreach in her area’s prison to assist the inmates and their children. Betty Lawson, Children’s Librarian at the Wayne County Public Library in Honesdale, has visited the Wayne County Correctional Facility every Friday since April 2015. Ms. Lawson believes that stable, healthy families are always going to come to the library and she is sure that somehow, books will be a part of their lives. She says, “It’s the people that are lost and broken that we need to outreach to.” Ms. Lawson meets with three inmates individually for three weeks. Brochures are available to inmates who can then volunteer to be a part of the program.

In the first week of the program, Ms. Lawson shows the inmates a PowerPoint presentation which states very simply what physical changes occur in a child’s brain when he or she is reading or being read to. She also brings about ten picture books for the inmates to read and choose which one he would like to read to his child. Additionally, a “life book” which is essentially an autobiography of the parent is given to each inmate to fill out for his or her child. It includes things like the parent’s favorite color, music, how he felt when his child was born, what his hopes and dreams are for the child, and also how he was separated from his child.

During the second week, Ms. Lawson records the inmates reading aloud to their children. She takes the audio back to the library and burns it to a CD for each inmate to give to his child along with the corresponding book. The inmates are delighted by the finished project in which they had a part. The final week of the program is focused on having fun and keeping their confidence buzzing by playing BINGO based on the PowerPoint from the first week and Scattergories.

Ms. Lawson would be ecstatic if other libraries took the opportunity to visit jails and prisons in their communities to help the inmates there. She stresses the importance of building a rapport with the inmates quickly and letting them know that even if they have had struggles in the past, they all have the potential to be successful. She revels in the opportunity she has to make the inmates feel smart and worthy, even if it is for just a few weeks.

For more ideas on how to promote Civic & Social Literacy in your library, visit the PA Forward Commons and be sure to add your programs to the database by completing the PA Forward Commons Submission Form!

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