Library wants to be stronger resource for formerly incarcerated

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With recently awarded grant funding from the Finger Lakes Library System, the Tompkins County Public Library will be pulling together its resources to be able to better help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated community members.


After being approached by Susan Donatelli, incarcerated youth instructor at TST BOCES, who wanted to expand the collection of books available to inmates of the Tompkins County Jail, librarians Sophia McKissick and Teresa Vadakin decided to take the opportunity to do even more. So, they applied for an outreach mini-grant from the Finger Lakes Library System for $1,450.
“And also looked for ideas that we could expand that, too, so that we could have more involvement and make it more outreach focused,” McKissick said.
Along with expanding the collection at the jail, TCPL will also be expanding its collection and programming to better serve the formerly incarcerated by offering them resources they might need. Now, the library is working on creating a welcome packed specifically for individuals who have been incarcerated, explaining the resources available not just at the library but in the community when they get a library card.


TCPL isn’t doing this alone. In each welcome packet, and available at the library, will be the re-entry tool kits created and published by the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). Information about the resources available at the library will also be included in MRC’s care packages put together for those re-entering society after incarceration.


“It was written with people who had actually gone through this experience,” McKissick said of the re-entry tool kit from MRC. “It’s actually, concrete steps, as well as the local resources that people can use when returning to society.”
But it’s not just the formerly incarcerated that this money will be going to help. Librarians from TCPL will be going into the jail several times a year to conduct programming and tell inmates what the library has to offer and how it can help them when they are released.


The expanded collections were curated by Donatelli, McKissick, and inmates from the jail so that it would be targeted to the specific wants and needs of the community this grant money is being used for.


“Specifically, part of the goal of this is to be more welcoming and accessible to people affected by incarceration and their families,” McKissick said. “We want to show them that we are here and that we have things to offer even if they wouldn’t expect the sorts of things that we have here.”


Breaking down barriers to using the library’s resource is an ongoing goal. It’s one of the reasons that TCPL recently went fine-free. In this instance, Vadakin said they will be speaking with circulation to make it as easy as possible for people to get library cards, even if they don’t have some sort of ID or passport. And it won’t just be formerly incarcerated individuals that will be helped. Their families will also be able to find resources at the library. The Youth Services Department of the library will be making a book list specifically for kids who have parents in the prison system.


McKissick will be doing something similar for the entire collection, and the books that will be added to the collection. Along with a list of books, she wants to pull together a more comprehensive list of programs at the library that could be useful, as well as resources like websites that people could possibly access on their own.


“Just to get that information to people in a way that’s more accessible so they don’t have to go digging for it,” she said.


The money will mostly be going toward purchasing books for the jail collection and TCPL’s collection, but will also purchase 100 MRC re-entry tool kits. The money is only for one year but the library does hope to expand it in the future and work with more local organizations that work with this population.
The library already offers programs, classes, and resources that can be used by anyone who walks into the library but might be especially useful to this population. Part of this grant will be used to spread the word about what is already available.


“Libraries are very technology focused now and for people who have been in jail – even though the jail specifically is short-term for people – you miss a lot of stuff and it can be jarring and another access barrier,” McKissick said. “We could help with that if people just knew that they could come to us.”


Around the country, Vadakin said, libraries are starting to delve into this realm of work more and finding ways to be a support system for this population. TCPL was able to utilize resources that other libraries had already created while working on its own guides, like the Freedom Ticket page from the Hennepin County Library that has already curated a list of books and re-entry resources for people leaving corrections facilities.


TCPL wants to change the image that many people have of libraries, and librarians, as places where you can’t talk or have fun. For many people, a negative experience at the library kept them from coming back.


“We are trying to foster a very different environment from that,” McKissick said. “But if that’s what you see when you’re a kid, then why would you think otherwise? We want to get that information out to people and show them that that’s not what we are.”

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