With COVID-19 impacting prison communities from Philadelphia to California, the Biden-Harris administration should focus on the reentry of just some of the two million people currently behind bars. Enabling the reentry of individuals from prisons and jails and back into society is paramount, not only because of the health risks associated with the pandemic but because of the high economic costs associated with incarceration and reincarceration.
Policymakers don’t have to look outside of their local community for at least one resource to combat the personal, community and economic challenges associated with incarceration and reincarceration — libraries have long been underrated spaces for facilitating reentry and family connections both behind and outside of bars. As jurisdictions continue to reopen and plan for a new form of normal in 2021, prioritizing investments in libraries as public spaces where individuals can seek opportunity will be all the more important.
The difficulty of facilitating reentry has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic: reentry service providers have had to pause programming or go virtual, unemployment is high and families are juggling increased caretaking responsibilities.
Even absent the pandemic, formerly incarcerated individuals face many challenges, including navigating family relationships, finding housing and employment, and improving their health. Given the relative lack of reentry services available today, two-thirds of individuals face rearrest within three years of release. And reincarceration has costs to those going bars as well. Those with certain convictions may lose governmental benefits, including access to education assistance, housing assistance, food stamps and their drivers’ licenses. Furthermore, laws can restrict individuals with felony convictions from voting.
As described in a recent American Library Association report, libraries offer solutions to many of the fundamental challenges that newly released individuals face — including how to make a living. Libraries help people conduct job searches, fill out job applications and prepare for interviews. People without access to Wi-Fi and computers can access online and on-site classes and services to develop new skills, attain certifications, pursue aid for further schooling, engage in training programs and more.
Library staff serve as a vital connection for individuals navigating reentry, enabling them to find housing, access health services and navigate the labyrinth of criminal justice laws. In addition, libraries also offer formerly incarcerated patrons the opportunity to register to vote, meet local political candidates, find health services and benefits, and apply to reinstate their voting rights.
Libraries also prepare individuals for reentry while they are still behind bars. Individuals in some states depend on in-prison libraries for family-based services, which research finds can play a critical role in supporting their reentry and desistance from crime. The New Hampshire Department of Corrections’ Family Connections Center, for example, uses family library books as tools during video visits between incarcerated parents and their children. Community libraries can serve as neutral places to reconnect with family members while also promoting healthy parenting and literacy. During the pandemic, many public libraries have published online resources for parents and families, and these resources are particularly well-suited for parents hoping to reconnect with their children after a period of isolation.
For Jason Dixon and his family, the benefits of libraries are numerous. While Jason served seven years in Somerset State Correctional Facility, the prison library served as a vital resource to connect with his family. It was there he recorded himself reading books for his infant daughter. When he left prison, Dixon’s first big step toward a new life depended on a visit to a public library. He used a library computer to enroll in community college and to search Craigslist for his first post-prison job. For those returning home, libraries are trusted spaces that serve everyone in the community, without stigma or judgement. Libraries protect patron privacy and place confidentiality in the highest regard.
The benefits libraries offer to formerly incarcerated persons touch individuals, their families and entire communities. Libraries are already centrally located in the hearts of local communities. By leveraging existing resources of technology, expertise, information and connections to other local resources and services, libraries provide critical support to the convicted and formerly incarcerated.
If the new administration is looking for innovative ways to reduce reincarceration and promote healthy communities, they need look no farther than their local library. Libraries are already doing their part to facilitate reentry and reduce recidivism — now is the time to reinvest in and scale up those benefits.