While the library welcomes ex-offenders, they can be a difficult population to target. Here are three ways to market and tailor your programs to this less-visible group.
One afternoon, a man approached the information desk wearing a suit and a smile. After serving a 40-year sentence, he had been released from prison only a few weeks earlier. He had come to the library to solve a big problem: his grandchildren were making fun of him because he could not use a computer. Could we help?
Community members who have served prison time represent a large portion of the population. In 2014, over 4 million adults were on probation or parole. Roughly one-quarter of current inmates are serving a prison sentence between five and ten years. These sentences are long enough to keep prisoners from learning about the latest technology trends and workforce skills.
The library is a natural place for returning citizens to engage with the community. Brendan Dowling states, “At the library, ex-offenders find a neutral and anonymous atmosphere in which to go about the business of restructuring their lives.” While the library welcomes ex-offenders, they can be a difficult population to target. Oftentimes, the stigma of having served prison time is enough for these patrons to keep this part of their lives hidden. Many citizens returning from prison may never make their previous status known, nor should they have to. How can we offer programs that will benefit this segment of the population without encroaching on their privacy?
Making in-roads into local prisons takes time and buy-in from administration. However, there are three steps you can take today to market and tailor your programs to this less-visible group.
Start on the “inside”
Many prisoners may serve time in prisons outside of your community, which increases difficulty in making the case to provide direct service to the prison population. While you may not be able to visit prisons, you can find inroads through the organizations that do. Find out which community groups are working with current prisoners and returning citizens, such as a local police station, church groups, advocacy centers and workforce development agencies. Discover what programs would be most helpful to their clients and ask how the library can make those happen. Talk to halfway homes about how the library can verify if a resident has visited and obtained services. These steps allow organizations to be a part of the planning process, opening the door to collaborations benefitting both parties.
Be visible, be available
Most returning citizens are under no obligation to share their status with librarians or other library patrons. Therefore, it’s up to the library to make sure offered programs, that are of interest to this population, are well-advertised. Librarians should plan to advertise in community organizations that provide services for ex-offenders. This can be done through an email list or by dropping off information directly. Prison librarians are also a great resource for citizens who are about to re-enter. Making those connections early will ensure patrons will reach you.
It’s not all fun and games ... but some of it can be
Ex-offenders face a number of barriers to re-entry. It's important to cover as many bases as possible in your programming, and make sure word is getting out to those who would be interested. However, don't feel limited. Programs that focus on fun topics — such as family storytime, a photo editing class or a book club — can also go a long way. Not only do they provide a fun way for returning citizens to learn new skills, but they showcase the library as a safe, nonjudgmental place for normalcy.
To find more information on serving ex-offenders, including program ideas, check out the following sites:
- "Public Libraries and People in Jail" by Kathleen de la Peña
- "Free to Learn: Public Library Services for Ex-Offenders" from the Denver Public Library
- "Public Libraries and the Ex-Offender" by Brendan Dowling, Public Libraries magazine
- Services to Incarcerated People and Ex-Offenders, a column from ALA's Office of Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services
What have you done to assist ex-offenders? Tell us about it in the comments!