National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice

Below are my note from the session on Creating the Prison Classroom: From Policy to Practice. Some of my notes here are not as in depth, because this panel was so interesting to listen to! Take the time to check out their programs!

Brenda Dann-Messier, United States Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education

Brenda, being in a government, spoke to the audience as a government official, similar to a stump speech. While I could be more critical of what she had to offer, she did offer information about what the U.S. Education Department was doing for prison education. I would refer many people to check out their website and see what is available; especially the following:

Rebecca Ginsburg with Education Justice Project

Rebecca’s talk focused on creating a more humane learning environment in prison classrooms.

The biggest challenge we face in higher education in prisons is us; what we, outsiders going inside prisons, bring into our programs such as our attitudes and biases. Some of the ways to address these are to be aware of the following items:

  1. Micro-aggressions: These are subtle, demeaning insults against specific people that are verbal and often non-intentional. For example, if someone states “You are taking that too personally.”

  2. Cultural humility: This term is when one adopts a courious attitude with a humble approach to learn about others. This takes emphasis off of our own experiences. An example of lacking cultural humility is when you are speaking to a group of black men and you are telling them about what black men think.

No one works with a prison education program to hurt others feelings, but the question is: Can we come as we are? This is especially important if our privilege has never been challenged.

Suggestions to improve the learning environment is to create safe spaces where people can voice struggles and feelings, support difficult dialogues and the skills to talk about oppression, provide space to have such conversations, and build cultural humility.

Rob Scott with Productive Prison Landscapes Program of the Education Justice Project

Rob began his talk by introducing us to the higher education in prison list serve. He also made the clarification that though the conference had been using the term correctional center/institution we really mean prison, for our system is one that is clearly punishment focused and not one that has programs and services that really try to rehabilitate/correct those behind bars.

Rob introduced to many and encouraged to all the use of critical pedagogy in our work.

He also suggested that we reject and challenge sectarianism; Party A cannot liberate party B without party B’s involvement. We need to stop doing things to others but with others.

As we work together we need to reject positism. We can take a stance that it is not only recidivism that we focus on, because we also need to stress the importance of knowledge.

Keyes Stevens with Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

Keyes project focuses on giving educational opportunities that giving educational opportunities that give students the insights to see that they are learners and that they can succeed in learning. See pictures from the project here (photos by Ann Hermes).

She stressed that we need to be just as compassionate to correctional staff as much as we are with our students.

With her program in Alabama, the DOC  as of a partner to her program as higher education institutions are to the point that they advocate for her program and have asked for it’s expansion.

Education Justice Project’s Open House

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Education Justice Project (EJP)’s open house at the Danville Correctional Center (DCC). It is at their EJP library in which I hope to be able to complete half of my practicum and spend 50 hours in my final semester working in their library.

There are two libraries in DCC, the EJP’s library (only EJP students have access to) and the prison library (the past librarian Liz Robson just retired – learn more about her at: Prison Reference Services On Little Finding – A Perspective From 20 Years Ago).

This visit was my first in a prison facility. Besides being in a rural part of the state and on a much larger scale, it felt similar to the jail setting setting. Most of our time was spent in the classrooms or the library. One of the other visitors stated at the end of our visit that he kept forgetting he was in a prison until he noticed that everyone’s shoes/shirts where the same color, a guard would past the door, etc. and these realizations would pull him back to reality to the space we were in.

We were able to visit two of the four four-credit classes that was in session that night. I sat in on a class about sustainability and one that had a new visiting scholar every week on various topics.

The classroom in which the sustainability class was held had more technology than I had expected to see. There was a projector, computer, speakers. Across the hall was a computer lab. Later I was told that the library also has to offer 10 laptops (out of 15, for 5 are not in working condition).

The 2nd class I observed is a Discovery class where each week is a different them and guest lecturer. The week’s theme I was able to see was hip-hop feminism with scholar, Ruth Brown, Ph, D. The students explored her work Wish to Live: The Hip-hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader.

After this class I asked a gentleman to catch me up to speed on what happened in the first half of the class, for I saw mostly Q and A. He had read Wish to Live three times, asked specifically to have Ruth Brown come to their class, and he wants a degree in Women’s Studies. Over the summer they had a gender/women’s studies reading group that has now formed into a feminist club! A feminist club in a men’s prison! This student was so excited and enthralled in the topic of Women’s Studies and had so much to say that I barely got a word in! 🙂 He shared parts of his life experience, especially how women’s studies opened his eyes in part because he has two daughters and how he wants his girls to be treated. Knowing what he wanted for his girls led him to examine how he treats all women, which then led him to examine patriarchy, the oppression of women, & intersections of race and class.

So, later in the week when I was at a book sale that profited an organization that helps prisoners have access to books, I scooped up all of the books on women, girls, and race that were contemporary. One that I got that I hope they will enjoy is YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American.

When I went to pay for the books I found, the librarian working the sales table said, “Looks like you have some heavy reading.” I told her that they were not for me, they were for the EJP’s library for the feminist club to read. The librarian’s response was something along the lines of: “Well, who do they put in that club? All of the wife beaters?” and then went on to say something else about turning men into women.

What!?!? I was super upset that I didn’t know how to respond. I felt that her response devalued the students’ interests and experiences.

My experience so far with the EJP so far has showed me that their program offers a space where critical and free thought is welcomed and encouraged, a space of growth, and a space where students behind bars’ lives and voices are not only heard but are deeply valued.

I hope that my work fosters a similar environment and my patrons will know that they are valued.

Successful Book Donation to Vandalia Correctional Center Library (& I Met My First Paid Prison Librarian!)

Last month the 3 R’s Project (Reading Reduces Recidivism) was able to make a successful donation to Vandalia Correctional Center Library!

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Vandalia’s librarian, Steve, was able to travel to a collection site to pick out collected items to bring back to the correctional library. He picked out 135 books (61 non-fiction, the rest fiction) and 20 magazines. Fiction was mostly classics, science fiction, and popular fiction (ex: Patterson). What Steve was unable to bring back to the library with him was urban fiction (a highly requested genre) due to the hardship in being able to collection urban fiction in the community.

Being able to meet a PIC librarian was great! I could barely believe I had the chance to ask any question that I wanted to someone working in a PIC library! Steve was able to share examples of key issues in the library he maintains, circulation periods, collection development & weeding, and offer feedback on some of the issues I was struggling with. Meeting Steve provided confirmation that I was on the right path on preparing for and thinking about PIC librarianship and gave me that boost that was all sometimes need to work on our work a little harder. 🙂

Upcoming Event: Beyond Lines

‘Beyond Lines’ features art work produced by incarcerated artists at Danville Correctional Center, a men’s medium-high security Illinois state prison. Students at the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project organized the exhibition and produced the accompanying  catalogue. Their goals include challenging popular assumptions about ‘prison art’ and stereotypes about incarcerated people generally. They warmly invite you to attend the exhibit and related events, which will be shared with the men at the prison via video.

Following Events are:
September 25, 7pm: Prisons in the Media
October 9, 5pm: Danville Writers’ Symposium
October 23, 7pm: Screening of Shakespeare at Danville
October 30, 7pm: Families of the Incarcerated

The event is sponsered by the Education Justice Project (EJP) and B00ks to Prisoners.

Below you can view the Shakespeare performance from Danville with the EJP:

Prison Reference Services On Little Funding – A Perspective from 20 years ago

Let’s go back to 1991 and visit the Danville Correctional Center Library with librarian Elizabeth Robson.

Robson reminds us in her article, Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time, that the reference interview is something all librarians try to perfect, but in the correctional setting:

in addition to the usual problems faced by “free world” librarians, the correctional setting presents its own inherent set of difficulties to the reference practitioner. 567

One difficulty that is faced include communication skills of patrons behind bars and listening/interpretation skills by librarians, especially narrowing the information needed by the patron and having patrons being aware with library terminology. An example provided by Robson: a patron request of “I need a review of book xyz” really meant to be”I need to RENEW the book xyz.”

Another is trying to provide information to the information need “often with limited material, resources, and time” (567). Reference material on the cheaper side that she utilizes are the following:

  • A general almanac – the most cost effective book in the collection – “One quickly learns the variety of information available in the $6.95 almanac, a tool which pays for itself many times over” (567).
  • State maps – that doesn’t have the restricted detail that is forbidden in the prison for security reasons
  • Government directories
  • Guides to colleges, universities, and scholarship funds
  • resume-writing guides
  • medical dictionaries and encyclopedias

The prison reference collection holds many of the same items that a public library would hold. The prison’s collection may have a wider scoped due to trending interests of the patron population. Some of these key interests are:

  • Time’s Life series
  • career guides
  • African American history
  • art and music
  • Islamic items

Since the above items are of such interest to the population they have a higher rate of going missing or as Robson calls them “rip-off” items (567).  With high rates of missing materials, Robson’s library decided to handle it in the following way:

Individual inmates can check out these materials, but they are limited to one item and one-week time period, and must sign a contract agreeing to pay for the tiem if it is lost, stolen, or damaged. This practice only helps to safeguard the collection, it also increases the chances that information will be available, or at least traceable at a given time. (568)

What is not disclosed to us why patrons are able to check out reference materials, an unusual practice with traditionally non-circulating items. A possibility is that patrons are only allowed a limited an amount of time in the library and patrons check out reference materials out of necessity of time restraints.

If reference materials are not in the library’s collection, it was the librarian’s role to fulfill information needs by “telephone and personal legwork” (568). The most useful resources to Robson were the Reference Department at the state library and the single fax machine at the correctional facility.  The most unique way Robson obtained quality information from her patrons was:

Visits to the Reference Department of my public library, masquerading as a private library users and attempting to conceal my “secret library identity.” (568)

Twenty years later, where Illinois prison library have absolutely NO funding for the span of 10 years, I wonder how Robson does her services now. Is she still an undercover patron… has the public library caught on? Does her e-mail provide access more than the single fax machine? I’ve heard a rumor that Robson might now be preparing to retire. Beyond the budget freeze, there is also a hiring freeze of prison librarians, which means the library will close when Robson leave. I wonder what she thinks about the state of prison libraries after being in the field in Illinois for over 20 years.


Robson, Elizabeth. Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time. Illinois Libraries. 73.6 (Nov. 1991): 567-8.