Partnership between the Nanaimo Harbourfront library branch and correctional facility garnered a 2016 Presidential Citation for Innovative International Library Projects from the American Library Association.
Casual chats about books spark an innovative idea
When librarian Jennifer Seper sought to find a new home for the Vancouver Island’s Regional Library’s (VIRL) discarded books, one of the first places she considered was the Nanaimo Correctional Centre. She figured keeping a relatively recent stock of books wouldn’t be a priority at the prison.
She was right. Most of the reading material available to inmates, she discovered, were battered old romance and Western novels, many with missing covers and pages.
With the help of some the inmates, Seper worked to catalog and shelf the new(er) books at the prison library. This led to conversations with the prisoners about various titles – they revealed memories of reading particular books in school, remembered old favorites, talked about what they have always meant to read but never quite put at the top of their lists.
It turned out many of these inmates were avid, passionate readers. And many of them, finding themselves with time on their hands, were becoming avid, passionate readers.
So, these casual literary chats sparked another idea for Seper – what about starting up a book discussion group for the inmates at Nanaimo?
Nanaimo Correctional Facility is a medium-security prison. After completing their sentences, the inmates serving time here will all be released back into society.
With this in mind, the institution’s staff is committed to working with its population to prepare them for this eventuality; and, ideally, inmates will leave Nanaimo with better skills for life out in the world than they came with into prison.
The correctional facility saw the benefit in the program Seper proposed – she expected some resistance but “the prison is focused on helping these guys grow,” she said. The book group fit right into this mission.
Studies, Seper pointed out, have shown that inmates who leave prison with improved literacy skills have lower recidivism rates. She also made the case that book discussions could benefit communication skills by providing participants the opportunity to disagree and share dissenting opinions in a courteous, conversational environment.
Other benefits for the inmates emerged as the group kicked off. It soon became apparent the prisoners have distinctive preferences in reading material – they tend to like non-fiction and are drawn to themes that invite them to consider and talk about individualism, the expectations for being a “good” member of society, what the culture values about men and masculinity, and what makes a hero.
Seper says some of the most popular titles read in the prison group have been The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, by John Vaillant, about the tragic consequences and conflicts of logging, and man vs. nature; and Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. It tells the harrowing true story of the only person born and raised in a North Korean prison camp to escape to the West.
In addition to the prison’s support, Seper explained that the VIRL was also enthusiastic in encouraging this partnership.
The VIRL is dedicated to fulfilling the values expressed in the Canadian Library Association’s statement on intellectual freedom. This includes honoring the responsibility of the library “to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library's public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them.”
For the VIRL, that means serving a pretty outspread population. Regular duties might include sending books by mail an isolated patron living as a lighthouse keeper. And it also means serving citizens who are currently incarcerated.
Seper is a passionate advocate for making reading materials accessible to everyone. She says it’s not just about libraries or prisons, but about communities making sure that even their underserved populations have access to materials and services.
“These are the people who stand to benefit most,” she said.
If there is one thing people come away thinking about after hearing about the group at Nanaimo Correctional Facility, Seper hopes it’s the realization that “that there are people in every community who desperately need access to the services of the library. I just want to encourage people to bring the library to them.”