S.C. Scraps Innovative Prison Library System
Chepesiuk, Ron, American Libraries
Prior to Apr. 1, the South Carolina state prison library system was recognized as one of the country's finest and most progressive. In fact, it was recently lauded by AL contributor and former prison librarian Richard Lee (AL, Feb., p. 129). But that vaunted program is now history, thanks to some sweeping changes that came virtually overnight.
The director of the prison library system--gone. The innovative pet therapy program--gone. The 10,000-square-foot library building in Columbia--emptied of all but one librarian. All of this happened in April in less than three weeks.
Librarians within the system who were contacted by AL say they don't want to comment publicly, not only from fear of retribution but because they feel shell-shocked and are still trying to figure out what happened.
It's a feeling shared by others in the state's government. "Whenever I talk with somebody [in state government], they just shake their heads and say, `What's going on in the Department of Corrections?'" one state official explained.
Sources believe it has a lot to do with politics and the agenda of South Carolina's new Republican governor, David Beasley, who assumed office in January. "Beasley believes the public wants government to get tough with criminals," one source explained. "That's why we are seeing all of these rapid changes in the Department of Corrections."
In early April, prison library personnel received a memo from the deputy director of the Department of Corrections, ordering them to remove all the pets from their offices. The following week, another memo told them to remove the animals from all prison libraries in the state.
Prison librarians used the pets to help relieve the boredom and the stress of incarceration. The program cost little money, and studies have shown that adults and children suffer from "touch deprivation," which the pets help to combat.
The animals were kept in the building housing the Division of Library Services staff and its books. Now only one librarian, the cataloger, is still working in the building. The others have been transferred. Meanwhile, the Department of Education is reported to be moving into the building soon.
Gone as well will be the 17 inmates who worked as trustees. "They earned the privilege and it gave them self-esteem," explained one state official familiar with the State Prison Library. "What's going to happen now, given that many of them were violent offenders serving sentences of 20 years or more?"
No longer can the library staff simply choose books and put them in the state' 17 prison libraries. Every book has to b reviewed by the state superintendent of education, the Department of Education's budget director, and the library system's advisory council. Every book purchased with a recent $13,000 grant underwent the scrutiny of the cumbersome review process. "Many books are rejected for reasons unknown, and they don't call that censorship," scoffed one state official.
Reforms bring on problems
Reforms are needed in the South Carolina state prison system, say sources, but they predict that the hard line changes, such as the ones that have come to the prison library system, are going to lead to major problems. In April, prisoners took hostage to protest new rules that made them cut their hair and shave facial hair. The hostages were released, but the tension remains.
Most sources believe, however, that the changes are permanent. So what kind of future does the South Carolina prison library system have?
"There will be no progress," explained one source. "The only thing the librarians will be able to do is to make books available to the prisoners. But the majority of prisoners in South Carolina have just a sixth-grade education. There is no money for reading programs. We're going to have a lot of angry men either who are inside prison or who will be leaving prison. Isn't that sad?"
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