Literacy Behind Bars: Inside the World of Texas Prison Librarians

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Last week, I'm eating with my brother at a 'communal' table in a busy restaurant here in Kansas City when a couple of guys come in and ask if they can join us (these are the only open seats in the place) and for some reason, we all start talking. The two guys are obviously younger than we are by about 40 years. They're dressed casually, friendly. Turns out they're brothers, too, but with much different lives. One brother, Pablo, revealed to us that he’s 4 months out of prison after serving 10 years for murder. He's only 26, and he was in gangs in his early teens. He's a welder now, and completed his GED and several pre-release programs including learning to weld, at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas. He proudly showed me on his smartphone his prison record with the list of his accomplishments while still incarcerated.

This was a sharp and timely reminder of a webcast I came across a couple of weeks ago while browsing the available online programming backlog at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. They recently held a webinar with the above title, which I stole for this blog post for obvious reasons. The librarians who answered questions and explained their work, operate, within the Texas prison system, a school district for offenders (they're not called "prisoners" anymore). I hope you'll take the time to listen and share, because the work they're doing and the apparent impact they're having are quite creative and remarkable. Plus, they have some brilliant suggestions for how the prison libraries can coordinate with public libraries to help prisoners find success after they’re released.

Although recent reports I looked up show that Texas is one of the top10 states for criminal recidivism, and has one of the largest prison populations, they're also putting money into educational programs for the incarcerated. Studies show these programs have measurable benefits. Here's a quote from a 2018 study:

"When focusing on studies with the highest caliber research designs, we found that inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs."*

And I found another quote from a related paper published by RAND, stating that “for every $1 investment in prison education programs there is a $4-5 reduction in incarceration costs during the first three years post-release of a prisoner.”

The librarians in the Windham School District (the name sounds like it's located in an upscale suburb instead of a span of nearly a hundred state-run prisons) are integrally involved in offender education, and if you think your patrons can be challenging to deal with...well, you should listen. This webinar, which is powered by questions from listeners, is fascinating, funny, moving and inspiring.

Here's the link to the archived webinar, complete with slides: My thanks for access to Naomi DiTullio of TSLAC.

By the way, lunch that day finished with my explaining what I did for a living, which is partly to promote documentaries to libraries. The brothers (the other one is a Relationship Banker at Bank of America) were interested, although Pablo confessed to me that he could tell our politics were obviously different because he sees himself as a Republican. "But all we had to watch, in prison," he says, almost apologetically, "was Fox News."

*Bozick, R., Steele, J., Davis, L. et al. J Exp Criminol (2018) 14: 389. Publisher: Springer Netherlands