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"So You Want to Become a Prison Librarian?”

By: Mary Rinzel Email
By: Mary Rinzel Email

"So You Want to Become a Prison Librarian?” That's the name of a Wisconsin Department of Corrections' presentation.

Turns out, there are quite a few people who want to do just that. But, since it's not a job that's on a lot of people's radar, the DOC is always trying to spark interest in the career.

Right now, there's even an opening in Jackson County.

We checked out the books behind bars at the Stanley Correctional Institution and the librarian we talked to says it's a job that's very rewarding.

Terry Johnson never walked into a library until he walked into prison.

"One week, I’ll read fiction, the next I’ll check out a book about computers," he says.

Ronald Morris has a little more experience with books.

"The last visit I made to the library was in college," he tells us.

But, both are regulars at the library inside the Stanley Prison.

"It's a different group, but they have the same interests as people at any city library," says Prison Librarian Stacey Birch.

Stacey spends her days making sure Terry, Ronald and the 1500 other inmates in Stanley have the opportunity to pursue those interests.

"It's amazing how many of them have never stepped into a library and are scared to come in,” she says. “I try to make it a little less scary."

But, Stacey says her job isn't scary at all, despite that perception from people on the outside.

"In this kind of an environment, it's a very positive place," she says.

It’s also a very popular place. Inmates line up for the chance to check up on the daily news and check out books. Because of that demand the library is open 12 hours every day, every day of the year, holidays, too.

"I believe each individual should have not only one area of knowledge," says Ronald. “That way if one area of life fails, you have something to fall back on.”

Since being behind bars, Ronald, who has a college degree in information technology, picked up the language of the law. Now he helps other inmates with their legal questions at the library.

"I’ve widened my vocabulary, learned new words,” says Terry. “I learned a great deal of strength and patience through reading because I never read before."

Stacey says Terry is one of the first to help other inmates with the same questions he once asked her.

"He assists the guys so they can find books, and teaches them how use the Dewey Decimal System," Stacey says.

Two examples of what she says make being a librarian in the world of lock-downs so worth while.

"They're here for a reason,” she says. “My job is to help them change their life. A lot of them want to change and the library is a good place to start.”

In case you're curious what books are flying off the shelves in Stanley, Stacey says just check the best-sellers list. She says ever since the "Harry Potter" craze, it's been a toss up.

Vibeke Lehmann, the library services and education technology coordinator of the DOC says prison libraries are always looking for donations. For more information on just how to do that, call the prison of your choice and ask for the librarian.


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