SJ SIG's "Conditions of Confinement:" An Event Recap

by Melissa Morrone, Supervising Librarian, Information Commons, Brooklyn Public Library

In October 2015, METRO's Social Justice SIG (SJ SIG) put on a panel called “Conditions of Confinement: Mass Incarceration and Access to Information.” The event was co-sponsored by The New School's Humanities Action Lab, which has an incarceration project that will launch in New York City in April.

SJ SIG co-convener Cynthia Tobar opened the panel with a mention of Kalief Browder, a former student at Bronx Community College (where Cynthia works) who had killed himself the day before he was supposed to help with graduation duties there. Kalief had been locked up in solitary confinement for around two of his three years on Rikers Island during which he was never convicted of a crime.

Panelist Nick Franklin, Coordinator of Transitional Services at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), talked about neighborhood engagement and how in order to understand communities you may not be part of, you need to go into the schools, the community centers—and the jails. The Outreach Services department at BPL was formed two years ago in part to assist the many librarians who were not prepared to deal with formerly incarcerated and/or homeless people in the branches. In addition to library services to people at Rikers, the Brooklyn Detention Center, and other facilities, TeleStory is a child-friendly BPL initiative where kids and dads read together via a live video connection at a library location (though Nick was clear that there's no substitute for in-person visits). Another BPL program, Daddy & Me and Mommy & Me, involve recording a parent reading books and sending a CD to their child.

Johnny Perez spoke next. Referencing his experience as a prisoner from ages 21 to 34, he noted that being able to access books in prison is very powerful—it's the only way to travel beyond the bars! Reading provides both escape and self-education. The quality of libraries varies widely from prison to prison. Books are often outdated, and you might encounter further frustrations such as the last few chapters being ripped out (as had happened to a particular Jeffrey Deaver novel that Johnny was hoping to finish). On the other hand, interlibrary loan might be possible, and some nonprofits and activist groups will mail books to people in prison. He described how, while some sort of law library is legally mandated, there is no Internet access and the updating of the Westlaw database depends on the whims of prison administrators. (Federal prisoners have some restricted access to email.) If you're in solitary confinement (as Johnny was for part of his bid), your access to legal resources is even more limited.

Johnny also talked about the importance of transitional services and emphasized that information distributed through them must be correct and current (he recounted the story about a guy who was given the address of a mental health organization only to find that it had become a baseball field). New York Public Library's Connections is "like a Bible," Johnny said—it's accurate, clear, and insightful. NYPL staff will print and mail up to 40 pages, and there's also a Spanish version online.

Johnny's recommendations to the librarians are to be proactive; to think creatively about how to reach people inside; and to send relevant information, especially to transitional services. On-site, library staff can guide people to needed services such as food pantries, plus offer computer classes and resume help and essentially be prepared to guide formerly incarcerated people through how the world has changed since they were locked up (Johnny himself had never seen a touchscreen phone until he got out).

The final panelist, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) member Laura Whitehorn, reflected on how prison and jail library services are often worse for women. For example, she was once in a prison where the only book allowed was the Bible (New Testament). Shifting to the broader context, Laura spoke about a society in crisis that is essentially waging a genocide against black people, and she cautioned the audience not to think about prison as separate from society. Regarding literature inside, books about the Black Panthers are likely to get classified by correctional officers as "gang literature," which can get you put in solitary confinement. (Johnny agreed that there are always security concerns, with special suspicion on books that may serve a mobilizing purpose among prisoners.)

Recently Laura helped put out the single-edition magazine health magazine Turn It Up! for incarcerated people living with HIV and/or hepatitis, which was sent to 30,000 people around the country. (Approximately one third of people in prison in the U.S. have hepatitis C.) She explained that the hardest part was compiling the 12 pages of resources; organizations have no idea that people inside don't have access to information and can't get downloadable files. In terms of the value of a publication such as Turn It Up!, Laura recalled feeling as disregarded as "a bag of laundry" when she was in prison—but with Turn It Up!, people can feel like they're being seen.

Laura encouraged library workers to think of our task as an inspiring one—to spread information, and to help people who are empowering themselves. She also suggested that New York Public Library or other prominent library institutions could write a letter to the state Department of Corrections (NYDOCS), or a New York Times op-ed, criticizing the fact that young people are locked up with little access to literature. Furthermore, we can all take a small but significant step by no longer using terms like "ex-con” and "inmate”—a person in prison is, well, a “person”!

View related resources, including a book list and journalists and activists to follow on Twitter, on the SJ SIG's website.