An interview with Jeanie Austin about library services and incarceration
Our jail and prison populations are four times larger than in 1980; half of all adults in the United States have an immediate family member that has been incarcerated for at least one night. These sobering statistics, drawn from research by from FWD.us and Cornell University, shed light on why library services to incarcerated people and people who have been incarcerated are so important. These individuals are part of communities across the country; and, as Jeanie Austin puts it in a new interview, "like the public that can physically visit libraries, the reading and information interests of incarcerated people are broad, and readers are passionate about their areas of interest." Jeanie Austin will deliver the prestigious 2022 Augusta Baker Lecture on April 22, based in part on their new book Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access, Here, they discuss their outreach to youth most impacted by incarceration, the tenacity of other librarians and library staff who are doing this work, and how we as a profession can raise awareness of the realities of incarceration.
Congrats on the new book! How did you first become involved with the San Francisco Public Library's Jail and Reentry Services program and what spurred you to write a book about library services and incarceration?
Thank you! In many ways, the book is the twining of two strands of my professional efforts. I've directly and indirectly provided some type of library or information service to incarcerated people, primarily teenagers and young adults, for over a decade, and my PhD work was on library services to support youth most impacted by incarceration—primarily Black, Indigenous, and youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth. Like many authors, I hope that I have written the guide that I needed and could not find when I was beginning this work. Given the increasing attention paid to this topic within librarianship, I hope that it provides some foundation for other librarians to create new programs or conduct further research.
I was fortunate to be part of a creating a new program—Jail and Reentry Services—at San Francisco Public Library, but I can't take any credit for its origins. That credit belongs to my supervisor, Rachel Kinnon, and to the administration at SFPL. Rachel has been the juvenile detention center librarian in SF for almost fifteen years, and advocated successfully for young people to not lose access to library services when they were transferred from juvenile detention to the local jails as they became legal adults. Rachel and I sought out model library programming as we began our work, and the information we gained from other programs has been in many ways key to our success. We're very fortunate to exist in a network of librarians who are doing this work.
Why do you feel this work is so important?
Incarcerated people and people who have been incarcerated frequently speak to the value of having access to books and information. I've included a small set of examples of this in my book, but we receive this feedback frequently from our in-person and by-mail library patrons. Like the public that can physically visit libraries, the reading and information interests of incarcerated people are broad, and readers are passionate about their areas of interest. In part, this is due to the nature of incarceration and how difficult it is to access information while incarcerated. There are rarely line items in prison budgets to support recreational prison libraries, and in most cases these are slim when they do exist. This has ramifications for processes like preparing for parole hearings or reentry, but also on how people utilize books to maintain a sense of self, to find joy, to connect with others, to center their minds, or any of the myriad other reasons that any of us read.
As you were pulling together the case studies, were there any recurring similarities amongst all the library systems and their initiatives that surprised you?
I was incredibly impressed by the tenacity of the librarians and library staff included in the book. Most librarians had tailored their services to the specific circumstances of their libraries or of the facilities where they worked. Some were implementing what we might call stop-gap measures—gathering donations and digging through thrift stores to find the materials that they knew would be of interest to their patrons. That passion is incredibly laudable, but it also left me wondering what excellent library materials and programming these librarians might provide if libraries in immigration centers, jails, juvenile detentions, and prisons were well-stocked and reliably funded.
What are a few initial steps you can suggest for building organizational support and getting started?
An initial step is raising awareness of the realities of incarceration and recognizing it as a force that structures our society, and one that instantiates and continues forms of social stratification and oppression. A recent study, which I point to in the introduction of the book, found that half of all adults in the United States have an immediate family member that has been incarcerated for at least one night. Digging into this statistic reveals what many people already know about incarceration and its aftereffects—that it most heavily negatively impacts Black and Indigenous people and people of color. Recognizing and acting on this fact can be a way that libraries come to terms with some of their existing shortcomings and become more welcoming to both patrons and people who are not yet library patrons. A very simple way to do this is to bring information about the impacts of incarceration into regular programming, to identify areas for outreach to people who are incarcerated or on probation or parole, and to promote books, art, or other works by formerly or currently incarcerated people.
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