WSL Librarians Thomas Ivie and Brian Greene recently visited the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. The prison regularly goes through accreditation through the American Correctional Association, and as part of the accreditation, they need access to a credentialed librarian holding an MLS or equivalent degree. Thomas Ivie serves in this capacity for the state correctional facilities. Using LSTA funds, the Wyoming State Library provides a $2,000 annual stipend to the Penitientiary library and to the other 12 institution libraries to support collections.
By Thomas Ivie
We met with Hayley Speiser, April Williams, and Beth Strong who run the library services at the prison. The first thing that we noticed was that there is not a physical library for the inmates to go to, even though they have 1,600-1,700 items in their collection at any given time. Instead, library services are brought to the inmate living pods by way of two large carts of books. The carts are checked out to the pods and are rotated to the other living pods regularly. The exception to this is the segregation unit. Segregation’s library materials are delivered to their cells individually by a dedicated librarian (currently April Williams) who checks out the items to the individual instead of the pod. April is passionate about providing services to the segregation unit. Each pod has a paper catalog of the titles the library has in the collection. Inmates can request those books (and titles the library does not have) by filling out a request form. For titles that the library does not have in the collection, the library requests by interlibrary loan through the Carbon County Library, and the requesting inmate pays any fees.
These librarians face many obstacles and challenges on a daily basis. Quite often, they are tested by inmates who can be very unscrupulous — testing boundaries, and making attempts to intimidate or be manipulative. The library is only allowed to have paperback books, as hardcover could be used as a weapon. Paperback books do not stand up near as well and break down much easier. The librarians have to inspect the books much closer than a public library would. They look for notes stashed or written in books, contraband, and damage. These librarians go through security checkpoints and numerous locked doors just to get to their workplace. Wyoming has five correctional facilities, and the State Penitentiary houses the male offenders who are considered to be the greatest security risk.
In the same way any other library serves its patrons, the prison aims to meet the needs of theirs. They work to build the collection to relate to the interests of their population. There is a good demand for Louis L’Amour and C.J. Box. They’ve also seen a new demand for fantasy books. The prison library is working to meet the demand for art and how-to books as well. They can always use donations of paperback books, though content must not include gangs, extreme violence, and sexual activities. Hayley Speiser instituted a program where inmates can pick out a children’s book and be recorded reading it. They then mail the recording home so their children can have a story read to them by their father. This program is extremely important as it not only promotes literacy but also provides sometimes the only interaction that child might experience with their father while incarcerated. In spite of the many challenges the librarians at the Wyoming State Penitentiary face on a daily and hourly basis, they remain dedicated to providing literary, educational, legal, and recreational library services to the population there. For sure, this work environment isn’t for everyone. Our hats go off to these librarians.