Working at a Prison Library

On Tuesday, 30th of May, Megan Silver was invited by CILIP in Kent to give a talk on her experiences working in HMP, YOI Rochester and HMYOI Cookham Wood prison libraries. Having worked with men, women, and young people in prison libraries for fourteen years, Megan has decided to change jobs to the school library sector. We were very lucky to book her for what may be her very last prison library talk.

The venue was the University of Creative Arts, Rochester. Because there were only a small number of participants, we all sat around a couple of tables to listen and have an informal chat. Megan began by talking about how she got into working in a prison library and what her first experiences were like back in the early 2000s.

Megan began working with women inmates first. These turned out to be easier than the male inmates she would later work with. Women, related Megan, just seem to accept their situation better. They hunker down and focus on doing their time. Men, on the other hand, don’t want to accept their sentence generally. They fight for a while before settling down and getting on with things.

Megan worked in three libraries. One prison had a library that was very small. It was the size of an office and had books crammed in shelves all around the walls. One library, previously run by inmates, was a bit of a mess. The third library was a good size and had computers, but no internet access—not even for librarians.

Being a prison librarian often felt quite isolated. Prisoners, Megan told us, can only come into the library if they are attended by a security guard and security guards are in short supply. Without the internet and ability to talk to other librarians, the days can certainly feel very long.

Eventually, changes started to take place. Megan explained how prisons change dramatically with shifts in politics and leadership. Libraries were given a bigger role in inmate rehabilitation. This meant Megan could petition for internet and more library programs.

Megan explained the satisfaction she got being able to provide programs for inmates—helping them learn to improve their literacy and take a real interest in reading. They had books clubs and role-playing to explore emotions. They had computers with software to teach driving instruction and other educational pursuits.

Ultimately, however, no matter how liberal the politics, prisons are about control. And what we all found most shocking about Megan’s talk, were her descriptions of what little control Megan had in her own library. We librarians tend to take for granted the ability to choose the books we want to have on the shelves. But prison librarians have a list of books that cannot be on the shelves, ever. And the security personnel can, at any time, come into the library and demand that the librarian remove certain books—without explanation. The flip side of this is that the librarian must purchase a book that a prisoner asks for, as long as it is not on the list of banned books. If the librarian thinks that book should not be in the library, they will need to get permission to add it to the banned book list.

Megan also couldn’t provide a library activity without getting permission from security. She recalled one instance where she had read about the usefulness of a certain library program in prisons, but came up against an Orwellian level of control when she asked to instate it. When she broached the subject with security, she was told that it wasn’t going to happen and that she might need to be “re-educated” for even thinking about it.

Megan ended her talk with accounts of working with other inmates: the good, the bad and the ugly. People might think that the type of people Megan has worked with over the years would upset her, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. She has worked with murderers, petty thieves and everything in between. But her readers are people, not crimes. Megan laughed as she said that most murderers she’s known have been lovely people.

It turns out that Megan is leaving her job of fourteen years, not because of the inmates, but because politics have gotten in the way once again. Rochester prison is closing for three years while it undergoes a bid to become a super prison. Whether or not it will get the bid is unknown, but three years is a long time to wait to get back to work.

However, this does mean that there will be a position open for a librarian at Rochester prison in three years’ time. That should be plenty of time to put a CV together.

Write-up by Nora Camann, CILIPinKent

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