Public Libraries, County Jails: Best Ways to Break into Correctional Partnership

Since the 1790s, American prisons have provided books to inmates (Darby, 2004; Mfum, 2012) and many facilities staff correctional libraries. As you might imagine, substantial literature exists on the subject of prison libraries, but very little concerns local level correctional facilities. With a trend in increasing populations and 1 in 35 adults under some form of correctional supervision, the United States of America holds the largest number of inmates in the world (De la Pena, 2004; Eggers, Munoz, Sciulli, & Crist, 2006; Hass & Saxon, 2012; Schwartz, 2005; Crayton et al., 2010; U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] 2014 & 2015; Yamatani & Spjeldenes, 2011). Still, short-term facilities—jails and detention centers—often rely on public libraries for services and programs (De La Pena, 2004), and libraries are encouraged to respond. In the late 1970s, the American Library Association’s service standard policy first called “public libraries to extend their services to residents of jails and other detention facilities within their taxing areas” (American Library Association, n.d.; Baley, 1981).

A lack of research specific to jails has caused them to be seen as smaller prisons, an attitude causing widespread misunderstanding. (Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). The term prison refers to a secure State or Federal location holding persons convicted for crimes (De la Pena, 2004), and generally serving longer terms (Crayton et al., 2010). This contrasts detention centers and jails, terms often used interchangeably, which typically hold inmates for a shorter period of time and are locally operated (Crayton et al., 2010). While prisons house convicted felons, jails detain individuals awaiting trial, conviction, or sentencing (De la Pena, 2004). Most persons in jail have not yet been judged innocent or guilty (BJS, 2014) with 62% in a pre-trail status (Crayton et al., 2010). Some jail inmates may be serving short-term sentences for misdemeanors (Crayton et al., 2010). Another distinction is that jail populations can fluctuate with turnover averaging over 60% per week (BJS, 2014).

Libraries seeking information about partnering with a local jail may be disappointed. There is a gap in research for local level correctional facilities and public libraries. Even though “nearly three-fifths (59%) of all jail jurisdictions held 99 or fewer inmates” in 2006 (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011), the literature has rarely addressed the needs of rural public libraries and jails (Conrad, 2012; De la Pena, 2004; Ellern & Mason, 2013; Gee, 2006; Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). How are public libraries and jails partnering with one another to provide programs to inmates and released persons? Which program components are considered successful?

To gain access to incarcerated persons, public libraries will need to establish a working relationship with jail staff. In order to maintain a healthy, productive partnership with a local jail, public librarians will need to fully understand the limitations inherent in working with a detention facility. This includes frequent interruptions like lockdowns and late lunches (Fife & Fong, 2015). Establishing and maintaining good rapport with jail staff will encourage open communication and is one way to develop support for new programming (Fife & Fong, 2015). Programs work best in facilities in which the staff is pro-education (Mattucci, 2006).

Understanding the needs of jail inmates is also important and needs has been defined in multiple ways. Simply put, “a need can be seen as a problem that can be solved” McKillip (as cited in Young, 1994). Grant (2002), though, identified need in the following ways: “felt needs (what people say they need), expressed needs (expressed in action) [sic] normative needs (defined by experts), and comparative needs (group comparison).” The normative needs of prison inmates are known and may overlap those of jail inmates, but that assumption should be validated.

Statistically, incarcerated persons tend to have lower educational levels than the general population (Darby, 2004). According to the 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics for Education and Correctional Populations, 47% of local jail populations had not acquired a GED or high school diploma. Programs for adult inmates are often designed at the sixth through twelfth grade levels (Shaw & Berg, 2009; Crayton et al., 2010).

Beyond basic education it is important that life skills be developed: parenting, personal financial management, nutrition, and employability (Bates, 2005; Eggers, Munoz, Sciulli, & Crist, 2006; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Schwartz, 2005). To this end, programs commonly address literacy, allowing inmates increased access to materials that address the issues above (Bouchard & Kunze 2003; Conrad, 2012; De la Pena, 2004; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Shaw & Berg, 2009). Mental illness and addiction complicate an inmate’s ability to successfully access materials and programs (Alemagno & Dickie, 2005; Bates, 2005; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Sheehan, 2014; Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011). Substance abuse treatment and domestic violence counseling may be a more appropriate beginning (Bates, 2005; Schwartz, 2005; Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011), which may be outside the scope of many public libraries’ services.

Multi-organizational support is a prerequisite to fully addressing the needs of an incarcerated person, for whom recidivism is of critical concern (Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011). Released inmates experience many barriers to successful reintegration such as difficulty finding gainful employment, denial of housing assistance and food stamps, or refusal of federal aid for educational development (Doherty, Forrester, Brazil, & Matheson, 2014; Hass & Saxon, 2012, Khatibi & Grande, 1993). These combined needs go far beyond the abilities of a library/jail partnership; support from social services will be necessary both before and after release. When considering a jail partnership, investigate whether other organizations are contributing to the cause.

While the above evidence-based needs have been true for decades, the idea that programs must adhere to them is changing. A more modern approach to program development is to consider what the inmates want to pursue and learn, another way of stating felt needs, which would only be determined by soliciting their feedback (Bouchard & Kunze, 2003; Conrad, 2012; Mfum, 2012).

The most successful library programs for this demographic include common components. Adult inmates require opportunities to solve problems on their own. Blending instruction with hands-on experience is critical to engagement (Mattucci, 2006). Intensive programs are more successful than lengthy curriculum (Mattucci, 2006). A literacy education program may incorporate the inmate’s family, as does the award-winning Read to Me program (De la Pena, 2004; Lilienthal, 2013; Schneider, 1996). Incarcerated parents can feel removed from their children’s lives and programs like this establish family connection (Pogrebin, Dodge & Katsames, 2001). Incarceration is not the limit of impact on an inmate’s life, but rather the wellspring for loss: property, vehicles, residence, jobs and personal relationships (Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). Calling the inmates to action for their own cause is vital:

A reentry process that does not engage the offender in becoming a productive member of society is likely to be another notation on the chart of “tried” strategies. The offender must be challenged to become a contributing member of society. Taxman et al. (as cited in Hass & Saxon, 2012).

Finally, evaluating a program is of utmost importance for any facilitator wishing to prove its effectiveness to stakeholders. With fewer tax dollars, rural libraries and jails experience less funding and municipal support than crowded urban locations. At mid-year 2014, 47% of jail inmates were housed in 6% of jails (BJS, 2015). Small libraries need studies that show partnering, programs and benchmarks relative to libraries of their own size.

Of these studies, which significant contributions were present in the literature? In 2006, Mattucci emphasized the importance of gaining staff support and the futility of attempting a program in a facility where staff does not believe in education or rehabilitation. He showed that intensive group learning was more effective than on-going curriculum. That same year, Gee (2006) conducted a comparative study between offered programs and inmates’ perceptions of them. He showed that success of a program must be relevant to the inmates’ needs. Both Mattucci (2006) and Gee (2006) implied that goal orientation is a critical factor for inmate motivation. By 2009, Shaw and Berg seemed to embody these lessons. They evaluated the impact of a word study literacy program for adult inmates in a county jail. The program was short, intensive and designed with the criteria of a jail environment in mind. Inmates’ perceptions were measured quantitatively and qualitatively, including whether they believed the program was beneficial and whether they felt more confident in their spelling abilities at the program’s conclusion. Finally, by 2013, Ellern and Mason addressed the lack of literature for rural jails and libraries by researching their local jail facilities and respective library collections.

In conclusion, further research is needed. The nature of a jail as a short-term facility produces a climate radically different than that of a prison. Future researchers cannot rely on prison studies alone but must expand to the local level correctional facility and examine programs offered there. The product of partnerships between rural public libraries and jails should especially be the subject of research. Rural libraries’ severe limitation of resources (e.g. funding, staffing, and skills) hinders locally conducted evidence-based investigations of the jail and its underserved population.

A platform is needed for the exchange of program ideas, research, and lessons taken from existing partnerships between jails and public libraries. Currently, the information is disparate and difficult to locate, for which the most effective method has been contacting individual libraries. This question arises: what is a better platform for this type of communication? One possible solution I see would be to call upon the existing American Library Association’s (ALA) Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) to support research and communication between rural libraries on jail issues.


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Young, G. L. (1994). Needs assessment in program planning. College Quarterly, 2(2), 1-6.

Amanda J St John is Circulation Manager at Hailey Public Library.


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