National Conference on Higher Education in Prison – Patience, Persistence and Programming: Starting and Sustaining a Prison Education Program

The first session of the conference was titled Patience, Persistence, and Programming: Starting and Sustaining a Prison Education Program and featured three coordinators / directors from different programs.

Emily Guenther with Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program

A unique aspect of this program is that it was started by undergraduate students.

One aspect of her presentation featured the paperwork that was required of her to solidify her program and provide courses for academic credit. The university she is affiliated with required her to prove the university students’ safety who volunteered with the program inside of the prison.

To do so, she asked a librarian for help with research to see if there was any information about violent acts happening upon prison volunteers. The librarian found no such documentation; the librarian then provided a statement on not finding any recording any incidents for Emily’s report. She also reached out to other prison higher education programs to see if there had ever been any incidents that have happened with their work; everyone said that no violent acts had happened to any volunteers. Emily then produced a document that featuring the lack of incidents to fulfill the university’s need of proof of safety.

Below is a past panel from this program:

Barbara Sherr Roswell with Goucher Prison Education Partnership

Barbara began her talk with sharing the many issues where we, doing work in prison education, struggle finding balance, such as – build it and they will come vs. build it to last; fly under the radar vs. show your achievements; provide intellectual courses vs. provide foundational courses; how much time spent in the prison vs. on campus; culture of campus and academia vs. culture of prison, etc. While these unique balancing issues exist, many of us face them and we need to talk about the issues to find methods to fulfill the needs of students and the mission of our programs.

She also stressed that key stakeholders in prison education – inside and outside of the prison, supporters and those leery of the program – to know who to ask questions when you are in need. For example, how to create the logistics of brining flash drives in and out of the prison.

Jenifer Drew with Boston University Prison Education Program

The Boston University Prison Education Program began in 1972 and is in two facilities (a men’s a women’s). Jennifer spoke on having the right relationship with the DOC (Department of Corrections) that is balanced with the controlled environment that the DOC has and the university’s environment that has more creative freeness. She highlighted a number of relationships that can be developed between universities and DOCs. Some of them are:

Outside: University runs education program

  • Pro: university is able to use their creativity in the program
  • Con: frustration in the suppression of academic integrity for the DOC to meet their security concern

Into: University enters DOC and teachers/tutors leave after their time

  • Pro: more people can enter prisons and experience education in prison
  • Con: since teachers/tutors leave after their time commitment, many people do not have the opportunity to see the whole process a student goes through

Between: University and DOC has an independent contractor that works with both agencies

  • Pros and cons: I had never heard of this model before, so I forgot to take notes on this section! But, this is how the Boston University Prison Education Partnership operates.

Former DOC: Former DOC employees run education program inside of prison

  • Pro: staff knows security issues and DOC rules

Jennifer asks us: What is your relationship like with the university? What is your relationship like with the DOC? What are to pros and cons you face?

A resource Jennifer suggested to all of us is Prison Study Project from Harvard which part of their project lists all higher education programs in the United States.

She’s Back!

I recently wrote about Glennor Shirley’s blog being down.

As of yesterday, her blog is back and running! A big hip hip hooray for having access to the thoughts of this wonderful prison librarian!

You can visit her blog, Prison Librarian, at

Glennor Shirley’s Blog Is Down

UPDATE: As of July 26, 2012, Glennor Shirley’s blog is up and running again!

Glennor Shirley’s blog was considered one of the top prison library blogs.

Her blog, Prison Librarian, was located at

Last week she lost all of her blog content and I’m not sure if she is trying to regain her content.

The blog OLOS Columns: ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services featured Glennor as a guest blogger until 2008. You can read her past blog posts under the tag Services to Incarcerated People and Ex-Offenders.

To read more about Glennor Shirley, read Words from Past Prison Librarians: Glennor Shirley.

Words from Past Prison Librarians: Brenda Vogel

Here we continue our journey on looking into the perspectives of retired prison librarians. We previously looked at Frances Saniford and  Glennor Shirley. Our final retired librarian we will look at is Brenda Vogel.

Brenda Vogel, famous in the prison library world for Down for the Count: A Prison Library Handbook and The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century, was the coordinator of Maryland Correctional Education Libraries for 26 years.

Vogel calls the prison library “[a] curious mismatch, a triumph of good over evil, when it works” (xiii).

In “A Retired Prison Librarian’s Dream,” Vogel tells us that she still dreams about prison libraries, [l]ike a cigarette smoker who quits, not because you want to but because it’s time, you never get it out of your head” (xi).

In this piece, I like Vogel’s perspective on highly stolen books, partly because most of the dialogue is either to not stock the highly thefted books anymore or that it happens, so get over it:

Did you ever think of buying multiple copies of them so reading them wouldn’t be exclusive? So their value in the ‘marketplace’ would go down? [….] What if you had a procedure that would keep books from being stolen – like random shake-down of patrons by a CO as they left the library? The officer can check to see if the book is date-stamped. (xii)

Vogel offers a piece of advise before readers move from her retired librarians’ dream into her book, The Prison Library Primer:

And it only works under the heroic leadership of a librarian who is passionate, imaginative, cunning, conniving, creative, and convincing, a librarian who knows the course and stays the course and who keeps the library true to form in sight of the madness, corruption, and cynicism of the environment. (xiii)


Vogel, Brenda. The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

  • You can find a large portion of this book on Google Books.

Words from Past Prison Librarians: Glennor Shirley

Here we continue our journey on looking into the perspectives of retired prison librarians. We previous looked at Frances Saniford and now we move to Glennor Shirley.

Shirley retired in September 2011 after being a  prison librarian in Maryland for over 20 years. She has a popular blog that she still writes for called Prison Librarian.

After coming to Maryland from Jamaica in 1980, where she was also a librarian, Shirley began her work in the prison library as a part-time night job to make ends meet; this job eventually turned into her career, which she considers a “happy accident” (Haldeman). She states , “I am basically a person who believes in justice and what is right. I saw these needs behind bars” (Rosenwald “Glennor”).

Shirley claims “that her time as a prison librarian has been the most rewarding portion of her career” (Haldeman).

Why should non-imprisoned support prison libraries and reading behind bars? Shirley was not foreign to this question: “She was often asked why taxpayer money should be used to make a prisoner’s life more rewarding. Her standard answer: She wants to help them become taxpayers again. Without an education, she’d say, that’s impossible” (Rosenwald “Maryland’s”).

A card from one of her patrons from the day Shirley retired:

With deepest thanks and gratitude on your retirement from decades of advocacy on behalf of tens of thousands of Maryland prisoners. We will forever miss your enthusiasm of library services and especially your gorgeous smile. (Rosenwald “Maryland’s”)


Haldeman, Annette, ed. “Glennor Shirley Retires.” The Crab: A Quarterly Publication of the Maryland Library Association. 42.2 (Winter 2012). 23-4.

  • If you follow the link to find a list of her writing on page 24.

Rosenwald, Michael. “Glennor Shirley, head librarian for Md. prisons, believes in books behind bars.” Washington Post 25 May 2011.

  • If you follow this link, you can also watch a video of Shirley speak.

Rosenwald, Michael. “Maryland’s beloved prison librarian retires.” Washington Post 9 Sept. 2011.