Keeping Inmates on the Outside: Libraries Offer Services and Support to Ease Prisoner Reentry

By Cottrell, Megan | American Libraries, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

Keeping Inmates on the Outside: Libraries Offer Services and Support to Ease Prisoner Reentry


Cottrell, Megan, American Libraries


Like any librarian, Dan Marcou gets to know his patrons. He knows about their families, what they like to read, and where they're from. He often puts aside special books he knows that they'll enjoy. But unlike most librarians, he ultimately hopes he'll never see them again.

Marcou is a corrections librarian with Hennepin County (Minn.) Library, and his patrons are the residents of Hennepin County Jail. He remembers the first time he saw one of his favorite patrons back in jail after being released just a few weeks earlier.

"It was this very eyeopening moment," says Marcou. "I thought, 'I enjoy talking with you. You're a nice person. I'm happy to see you, but not inside the facility.'"

Marcou began to realize his job was more complex than just serving the needs of the inmates inside the jail. He needed to do more to make sure they didn't come back. As a kid, the local library had been a respite from the institution he hated: school. What if the library could provide his patrons with a safe haven to learn and get the resources they needed to keep from coming back?

The complexity of reentry and recidivism

According to the National Institute of Justice (bit.ly/ le0c5jL), within the first three years of being released from a criminal justice facility, two-thirds of former inmates are rearrested. Within five years of release, three-quarters are rearrested.

Why is staying on the outside so difficult? The process of leaving prison and returning to society, often referred to as reentry, can be complicated and fraught with problems. Housing, employment, transportation, mental and physical health, and relationships are just some of the issues Marcou says his patrons face upon leaving the jail.

"Many reentry issues piggyback off one another," he says. "A person with a job is three times less likely to reoffend. But without a place to live or transportation, it's pretty difficult to get a job, even without a criminal record."

In addition to the practical problems of housing and work, reentry can feel lonely and stressful. When Marcou asks his patrons why they're back, he often gets a similar answer.

"One resident said when they're inside, they're surrounded by positiveness. Jail was better than real life, because they had the support, a roof over their head, food," he says. "Someone told me, T don't want to do the things that I do, but when I walk out these doors, I have nothing.' That doesn't justify his actions, but it demonstrates these contradictions of what people have to face."

After some investigation, Marcou realized there were local organizations and programs to help folks reentering society, but most people about to be released didn't know what resources were available. The library's first step was creating a newsletter, which eventually transitioned into a pocket guide called Going Home, with information on how local institutions, including the library, could help with housing, jobs, education, and more. An area map delineating Hennepin County Library's 41 locations, and hotlines and websites for shelters, legal resources, and addiction and self-care support, are included.

Going Home is just one aspect of Freedom Ticket (hclib.org/about/outreach/ freedom-ticket), Hennepin County Library's reentry program. To highlight what the library can offer former offenders, staff members created a 12-minute video introducing current inmates to the library's many services and began showing it to inmates about to be released.

"Our goal wasn't to create a lot of new things but to promote things that already exist," says Marcou. "If I had a quarter every time I heard, 'I didn't know the library offered that,' I'd be a rich man."

In addition, Marcou began offering job resource workshops, connecting residents to specific industries and occupations they may be interested in, as well as offering programs to inspire and motivate inmates to make a change, like creative writing workshops and author visits. …

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