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Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Working with Incarcerated Youth Take II, a reflection by Karen Jensen

Yesterday, in her post about racial stereotyping in YA lit, Stephanie mentioned working with incarcerated youth.  At my last library position, in Marion, Ohio where I worked for almost 10 years, I too had an outreach program to incarcerated youth.  This particular facility was a last ditch attempt at rehabilitation before teens were sent to the real deal; these teens – well, some of them – were trying to work their way out of this facility and hopefully go back to their lives and make different choices.  This facility housed teenage boys of all ages and races who had committed crimes such as setting fires, getting in fights, and truancy.

Each month I would put together a collection of 50 titles and check it out to a special card created for the juvenile detention center.  A gentleman from the center would come pick up the collection and then distribute them among the youth with his own system of keeping track of who had what.  Then at the end of the month he would return them and pick up a new collection of 50 titles.

It was a pretty good system to be honest, except for the issue of what, exactly, the teens could and could not read.  For example, although they requested graphic novels, the detention center eventually ruled that they did not want these titles because of the way they depicted women.  Likewise, although the guys requested wrestling magazines, these too were deemed objectionable.

But what I really wrestled with were the types of fiction titles they requested.  You are talking some hard, graphic adult titles dealing with serial killers and rape and well – books I’m not sure you want teenagers who are already considering a life of crime reading.  So we had talks about what these collections should look like and how to balance them and provide options.  And because they only had 50 titles to choose from each month, they would choose to read things outside of their regular comfort zone.  Sometimes a note would come back to me telling me they had read something and liked it.  Often there would be requests.  Ironically, John Grisham was very popular.

When putting together my outreach collections, I always choose a balance of teen and adult titles, both nonfiction and fiction.  I would stick things in there like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey.  In addition, I bought and included things like 5 Minute Mysteries for more reluctant readers.  And of course I included biographies and other interesting nonfiction titles.

Doing an outreach collection like this is so different than helping connect a reader to a title through an RA interview.  There is no RA interview and there is a bridge that you must gap, in this case the institution itself and its rules, and still try to connect reader with book.  Occasionally, I succeeded, but probably not as often as one would hope.  But the coordinator on the other end would come back with feedback telling me what books the guys were reading and liking, and he would often come back with more specific requests.

This particular juvenile detention center had a yearly career day for the teens which I gladly participated in.  So each year they invited me and I put together a presentation about what I did as a librarian and how the library could help them in their quest to find out more about the occupation of their choice.  Each year that I visited I took one of our male employees with me.  A female library employee once remarked to me that she didn’t know what I was so afraid of that I had to take a male employee with me.  The truth is, as I explained to her, I didn’t take a male employee with me out of fear, I took a male employee with me because these teenage boys needed to see positive male role models; they needed to see men that they would look up to making good decisions and being successful.  They needed to see that the library was a cool place for guys.  They needed to see a guy talk about reading and the books that he liked and know that guys do in fact read and enjoy it and it was okay.

If you have a juvenile detention center near you, I would recommend that you contact them to set up some type of an outreach drop off collection.  You’ll need to spend a lot of time talking with the center about what types of materials they would and would not want the teens to have access to.  I’m all for intellectual freedom, but these teens have made choices that have taken away some of their freedoms and I think we have to respect the knowledge and experience of the institutions in these situations and follow their rules.  Be sure to work out to with your administrators the finer points of doing a drop collection, and be prepared for a certain amount of lost and damaged materials.
Doing a Drop Collection with Juvenile Detention Centers (Outreach)
1.  Establish a relationship and make your proposal
2.  Establish an outline of how many and what kinds of materials you will provide
3.  Create a unique user card in the name of the institution
4.  Set a monthly collection rotation date
5.  Make a set collection location in the library so staff know where to find the collection when you are not there.  In order to make this part easier for staff, I took care of checking out the collection myself.  They simply had to go get the crate of books and hand it to the pick up agent.
6.  When the crate of old materials is returned, staff check in materials as per procedure and bring any “snags” to me.  Likewise, any overdue notices are brought to me so that I can communicate with my primary contact.
7.  As your primary contact to keep track of what titles are being read and, if they can, feedback as to whether or not the teens liked said titles.  This will help you pull better collections in the future.

Additional Info
Helping Incarcerated Youth Turn the Page
Youth Services Wiki on Incarcerated Youth


  1. Great article, Karen. One of my former co-workers worked really hard to establish a relationship with an all girls juvenile detention center. She created an on-site library and would do book clubs there too. We even had some of the girls come to our library for book clubs and I saw the impact the books and these events had. Unfortunately, our boss didn't see the value and the relationship was severed. That still bothers me to this day. :(

  2. That is unfortunate. If we believe books have value and education matters, then we must believe it for all people. I would point this administrator to the 40 Developmental Assets and how they indicate that outreach like this can help teens make different life choices and demonstrate the value of this type of programming to the communities we serve. Thanks for the comment Terri, always great to hear from you.

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