Research on campus sparks jail service project

From left, Jill Ellern, systems librarian at WCU’s Hunter Library, and Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Public Library, part of the Fontana Regional Library system, deliver and sort books for the library at the Macon County Detention Center.

From left, Jill Ellern, systems librarian at WCU’s Hunter Library, and Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Public Library, part of the Fontana Regional Library system, deliver and sort books for the library at the Macon County Detention Center.

The collaborative research of a Western Carolina University librarian and a criminal justice faculty member into library services in rural Western North Carolina jails has inspired an initiative with Fontana Regional Library system to diversify and update book collections in regional detention centers.

Guiding the library improvement initiative are Jill Ellern, systems librarian at WCU’s Hunter Library, and Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Public Library, part of the Fontana Regional Library system. Gregg and her coworkers are working to secure books and financial donations to support libraries within detention centers in Macon and Jackson counties.

The librarians are seeking paperback materials in good condition that are appropriate for different reading levels, languages and ethnicities and that support education, work and treatment programs. The most pressing needs are for popular fiction; Westerns; educational materials for basic math, science, GED preparation or continuing education, legal forms and self-help titles, said Gregg. They also are hoping to secure a local newspaper subscription for inmates to share in the Macon County Detention Center.

“We are looking for ways to regularly provide these items to the jails,” said Gregg. “Donations will be greatly appreciated to help us provide this valuable service to the community.”

The initiative developed after Ellern spoke with head librarians as part of a research project centered on library services in WNC jails that she undertook with Karen Mason, associate professor of criminal justice. The stories of friends who worked as jailers had left them pondering what life would be like if they were incarcerated. As avid readers, they were particularly interested in the prospect of having more time to read.

“However, we found that the reality is not what you might imagine,” said Ellern. “There are very limited reading options.”

She and Mason met with jail administrators in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties over a period of several months to learn about their library services and policies, to examine their book collections and to look for ways they could help the detention centers provide quality library services.

The researchers were interested in how book collections fit into the overall management of the jails and the potential threats they presented. Hardback books were not allowed in inmate living areas for safety reasons, and some jails also restricted magazine and newspaper use.

Ellern and Mason also were interested in the type, quantity, quality and acquisition of books available. A review of prior research suggested that jail reading materials for inmates have the potential, if carefully selected, to promote literacy, learning and personal development, said Ellern.

Jail administrators who participated in the study shared that library services are important in giving inmates something productive to do, and they noted that happier inmates contribute to a safer environment. Some also described access to reading materials as a right rather than a privilege, and noted that the role of jails, unlike prisons, is custody and care, rather than punishment, according to a paper Ellern and Mason published about their research.

However, they also described the enormous challenges jails face in providing even rudimentary library services, said Ellern. The facilities lack not only funding to purchase materials but also space for books. Several jail libraries consisted of a single movable book cart and in one case the collection was in a locker. In addition, the facilities have limited staff available to maintain the collections and coordinate library services.

“Most of the collections could be described as a combination of religious, Western and romance titles,” said Mason.

Ellern said she was surprised not to recognize many titles among the paperbacks, which were very used and in various stages of disrepair. “This is not your standard library collection,” said Ellern. “These items are used up and must be continually refreshed.”

Although individuals and some organizations have made donations to detention center libraries in the past, none of the institutions had ongoing partnerships or programs to acquire new materials. Jail administrators expressed interest in forming partnerships with local libraries to improve their services, which led Ellern and Gregg to begin working together to launch the current jail library assistance initiative, said Ellern.

Lt. Steve Stewart, jail administrator at the Macon County Detention Center, said assistance with the jail library is greatly appreciated.

“This has been a tremendous help to us and especially to the inmates,” said Stewart.

Gregg and Ellern presented this fall at the recent North Carolina Library Association conference about their experience so far and findings from a paper by Ellern and Mason, titled “Library Services to Inmates in the Rural County Jails of Western North Carolina,” which appeared in the North Carolina Libraries journal.

In the paper, Ellern and Mason noted that WNC jail collections might be enhanced with books inviting to inmates about topics such as education, life enrichment, literacy and resources for job seeking, as well as re-entry into society after being jailed, mental and physical health, and self-education.

“With inmates having to serve sometimes up to two years in these county jails, they have time on their hands to engage and improve their lives, if given the chance,” said Ellern.

To learn more about donating books or money to the jail library effort, contact Gregg at 828-586-2016 or egregg@fontanalib.org.