Posted on August 28, 2014.
In the summer of 2012, a group of Winnipeg librarians and library technicians decided to create a prison library committee with plans to bring library programming into the Winnipeg Remand Centre. Having participated in the Greater Edmonton Library Association’s prison project in Alberta, the Committee’s founder and current chair, Kirsten Wurmann, introduced the idea to the Manitoba library community when she presented a session, entitled “Books Behind Bars,” at the 2012 Manitoba Libraries Conference (Wurmann, 2012). Here, Wurmann suggested that the Manitoba Library Association take action in response to the lack of programming within local prisons, prompting library professionals to start thinking seriously about these issues, and how help could be provided. The Committee was also inspired by the work being done by the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society; organizations focused on supporting individuals both inside and outside of prison. Up until this point, no direct library services had been established for those incarcerated, bringing up a number of significant questions. Where would the books come from? What kind of support would be needed? How would volunteers be viewed by the men and women in prison? These and other concerns were shared among the newly established Manitoba Library Association Prison Library Committee, and a core group of librarians set out to address them.
The Winnipeg Remand Centre
The first order of business involved finding a location where we could provide library hours each week, allowing the men and women in the prison to borrow books of interest; a project we came to refer to as the Open Library. Though the Committee initially considered a few different spaces for this project, the Winnipeg Remand Centre was the best fit, being central and largely in need of programming. Built in 1992 to house approximately 289 minimum, medium and maximum security risk adult males and females, the Remand has consistently been over capacity for years, the average number of inmates rising from 329 in 2005 to 406 in 2012 (“Winnipeg Remand Centre,” 2012).
After connecting with the administration of the Remand, all volunteers were cleared and given the opportunity to tour the facility. Through this initial site orientation, a number of stressors within the environment became visible. Such elements included the inability for many men and women to continue certain medications once admitted, and, as we expected, the facility’s ongoing issues with overcrowding. Often times, three men would be held within a single cell, even though such areas were designed to accommodate only two people. While a rotating schedule is used to establish recreational breaks, during which individuals can watch television or walk around for brief periods of time, daily mobility is often fairly limited. Conditions are also harshened by a lack of outside exercise time, giving those incarcerated little to do but wait for trial; a process that can take weeks, months or even years.
During our site visit, we also learned that the Remand facility had no major programming initiatives for its occupants. While such issues were addressed in part by programs offered through organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and the John Howard Society, eventually, a need for additional assistance became clear. The literacy classes provided by the John Howard Society, for example, have been reduced in size from 100 people to roughly 25 at a time, due to issues with overcrowding as well as a loss of classroom space (Welch and Rabson, 2012). All of this considered, we felt the Remand was an appropriate starting point for our project. Located in downtown Winnipeg, for most volunteers, the Remand is easily accessible. It is also much smaller than many other holding facilities, making it an ideal choice for a new project needing to be built from the ground up.
After a series of meetings held within the Committee, as well as between the Committee and the Remand staff, specific goals and regulations were established. The Open Library would be accessible every Saturday evening for roughly two hours within the building’s Program Room, an area normally reserved for meetings between individuals and their lawyers. Within this space, a number of locked cabinets would be used to store any books we could provide. Though put off to the side during most days, these storage facilities would be unlocked and brought into the main area of the space when in use. During Open Library hours, a guard would always be present, along with one or two library volunteers, allowing two groups of ten men or women to be brought down at separate times from different areas of the facility. Individuals would not be obligated to attend, but simply asked to sign up on a sheet, if interested. Once in the Library, we would have roughly an hour together, allowing the men and women to have time to choose up to three books, and in the process, speak with us about their reading preferences, or any questions they may have. We would also make notes regarding book suggestions from our new patrons, in order to help us develop our collection over time.
Initially, it was decided that the items in our collection would be made up of donations from a number of different sources, including withdrawn items from various library collections, namely the Winnipeg Public Library (WPL), as well as personal contributions. All donations would be sorted by genre, and catalogued with a series of colored dots on white labels representative of popular categories such as general fiction, mystery, and romance. V[WU1] olunteers would rotate regularly based on availability, providing everyone with an equal chance to experience prison library shifts. Beyond this, other pertinent volunteering positions would include assisting with Bin Refresh sessions every second Tuesday, allowing for a circulation of the books among the various floors, and Processing Nights, providing the opportunity to catalogue new books intended for the Remand space.
The Open Library
In the fall of 2012, we began providing men and women within the Remand with access to a functional library space, available on a weekly basis. In order to ensure the success and stability of this project, the cooperation of our patrons was, and still is, very crucial. By showing up week after week, they demonstrate their continued interest in using the Open Library, and concretely justify the value in this initiative. Beyond entering the library space and engaging with the materials provided, it is not uncommon for patrons to initiate conversations with us as well as each other, often drawing on their reading preferences, or discussing their challenges as readers. Those who are strong readers sometimes agree to read to those who are less comfortable with the process. Beyond this, some men and women have even offered to teach others how to read. For many of us, a good book can be a way to escape the pressures of everyday life and in the case of those in prison this is no different. Many of the patrons we work with have admitted that there is little in the way of entertainment or relaxation on the inside, making the Open Library a valuable asset.
In the past year, author talks have also become part of the Open Library, the first of which involved local writer and editor, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair. The session included a reading from Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water, a collection of unique stories provided by Indigenous Manitobans, as well as a general discussion about the book. During this experience, Sinclair emphasized a connection between the text and its audience, explaining to the men and women of the Remand that, “these stories were their stories” (Kim Parry, 2014). The fact that many patrons were already familiar with the book’s contributors only fueled the impact of this realization, creating a memorable patron experience. Because of this positive response, author talks have continued in the Remand space, adding an enjoyable new feature to the Open Library program and allowing us to expand our services to complement the interests of our patrons.
Since its creation, the Open Library has held appeal for a diverse group of librarians and library staff, attracting individuals from many different library sub-fields and positions. For new librarians and library technicians, this project allows volunteers to gain valuable experience through activities such as developing the collection, and engaging in reference interviews on a regular basis – skills that are transferrable, and critical within most library environments. While the prison library movement is already well-established throughout much of North America, the Open Library project itself was an innovative concept within Manitoba, providing a unique experience for those who have been involved with libraries for longer periods of time. From our experience, the inmates are growing through the opportunities presented to them via the prison library platform, creating a rewarding experience for volunteers and patrons alike, and motivating those involved with the Open Library to continue to uphold this project.
The Women’s Correctional Centre
Since its commencement, the Open Library project has expanded to include additional programming to the women at the Women’s Correctional Centre (WCC) in Headingly, Manitoba. Given some of the similarities between the Remand and WCC environments, programming in the WCC space is very similar to the Remand Centre’s original Open Library concept. Crates of books are brought into classrooms within the facility to create a library space. Within these areas, a book exchange takes place on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month, allowing patrons to select up to three items at a time. They can also consult with library staff, when in need of reader’s advisory services.
Like the Remand, the WCC programming also incorporates author talks, bringing in speakers such as Ann Mahon, author of The Lucky Ones. In many cases, authors are selected for their involvement with WPL’s On the Same Page initiative; a project that encourages Manitobans to collectively choose a local reading selection, which is then distributed, discussed, and celebrated, throughout the province (Pilon, 2014). In addition, Committee volunteers, along with staff from WPL, also participate in the WCC’s Resource Fair. Here, they distribute information about programs and services provided by WPL, ensuring that the women are aware of some of the ways they can continue to connect with literacy, learning and other readers, upon their release from the WCC.
In highlighting the efforts that have been made since its initial formation in the summer of 2012, the Prison Library Committee hopes to draw attention to the hard work and commitment of those who have invested in this project; a group of library employees who embedded themselves deeper within their community in order to provide library programming, and assist in the building of literacy skills. We also hope to encourage others to pursue similar projects within their own communities, and to continue to strive for positive change.
Sarah Clark, Liaison Librarian, University of Manitoba
- Parry, Kim. “Books Behind Bars: A Volunteer-run Prison Library Service in Winnipeg, Manitoba.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe. 26 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2014
- Pilon, Danielle. “On the Same Page.” Winnipeg Public Library. 8 July 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.
- Welch, Mary Agnes, and Rabson, Mia. “Prisoners Sleeping in Remand Centre Gym.” Winnipeg Free Press. 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 29. Jan. 2014.
- “Winnipeg Remand Centre Well Over Capacity.” CTV News. 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.
- Wurmann, Kirsten. “Books Behind Bars: Community Development Librarianship in
- Prison Libraries.” Paper presented at the Manitoba Libraries Conference, Winnipeg, MB. May 2012.
Please refer to the following link for more information on the Winnipeg-based Prison Library Committee: http://www.mla.mb.ca/content/prison-library-committee