Setting the Standards

Library workers discuss improving access for incarcerated people

June 26, 2023

Jeanie Austin speaks at a podium during a session at ALA's Annual Conference and Exhibition.
Jeanie Austin, librarian with San Francisco Public Library's Jail and Reentry Services program, spoke during the session "Expanding Information Access for People Who Are Incarcerated Service Standards and Mapping" on June 26 during ALA's Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.

During his nearly six-year sentence at Big Spring (Tex.) Federal Correctional Institution, Eldon Ray James was given an assignment in a speech class to share his post-release plans.

“I stood up and said, ‘I’m going to become a librarian,’” James remembered. “The laughter was quite intense.”

Despite being told it was “unrealistic,” James went on to receive his master’s degree in information science from University of Texas at Austin in 2007. Since then, he’s worked with several American Library Association (ALA) groups advocating for library access for incarcerated individuals.

Most recently, he served on the task force to develop ALA’s Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained. Approved by ALA’s Council on June 24 during its Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago, it’s the first update to prison library service standards since 1992.

James spoke with other library workers and advocates at a June 26 Annual session about this work and other efforts to better understand and build library services for the justice-involved community.

“The people in this room represent a new level of interest in a topic that I hold dearly,” James said to the attendees of “Expanding Information Access for People Who Are Incarcerated: Service Standards and Mapping.”

“I consciously chose not to become a librarian and go back inside a prison because I knew, psychologically, I could not hear that door slam behind me again,” he went on to say. “But this is what I can do to help bring services to those inside.”

The Standards task force first convened in 2021, outlining updated concepts and language. Now that their work is approved, the Standards will be published online and in print later this year, said Erin Boyington, adult institutions senior consultant at the Colorado State Library and of the project managers alongside James.

A new addition, Boyington said, is the inclusion of nearly 20 submitted stories from library workers across the US and Canada working with incarcerated people. They serve as case studies and inspiration for other institutions, Boyington said. Some of the library workers’ contributions, she added, include testimonials from incarcerated people. “Books are our lives in here,” Boyington read from one of them. “My only joy and friend.”

Also presenting during the session were staffers from San Francisco Public Library’s (SFPL) Jail and Reentry Services program, which received a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation in 2021 to support library services in and outside of correctional institutions.

So far, the team has done publicly available research and created trainings for those in the field. “With these tools, if people are interested in doing this work, you’re invited into a community,” said SFPL librarian Jeanie Austin. “If you haven’t done this work before, you don’t have to start from scratch.”

Most notably, SFPL’s team created a series of maps visualizing datasets related to carceral library services, showcasing statistics from correctional spending by state to which facilities have Books Through Bars programs or external library partners.

For future maps, the team imagines documenting sizes of carceral institutions’ library staffs or even what books they ban. “Who knows how it’ll look into the 5 or 6 years?” said Bee Okelo, SFPL’s administrative and GIS analyst.

When the panel was asked what excites them about this work, Okelo talked about the broader opportunities that arise from these conversations and projects.

“This goes beyond library services,” they said. “This connects to bigger conversations like abolition and, just generally, how do you run a society? How do we care about people? Especially people who are at the ‘bottom,’ that we’re typically told aren’t humans in the same way we are?”


Sterling Cunio holds up his cellphone as incarcerated individual David Fleenor shares the impact of a writers' workshop at his correctional facility on June 25. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

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