Incarcerated Youth
"When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment." -- Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall[1]

What is Library Service to Incarcerated Youth?

Library services to incarcerated youth is the development, implementation and management of library programming and materials within a juvenile justice setting, or for youth who have interacted with the juvenile justice system. This most often takes the form of a public library’s outreach program working within a Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) or similar residential correctional facility. However, it can also take place in a public library with youth that are on parole, probation, or serving a rehabilitation requirement. Possible library services to incarcerated youth could span from a permanent library within a JDC, a collection of donated materials circulated on carts, or a book club for incarcerated youth.

Why Incarcerated Youth?

"A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridge because of origin, age, background or views." -- ALA Library Bill of Rights[2]

"All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users." -- ALA Policy Manual[3]

At the core of librarianship is the belief that all people have the right to access a library and its materials. However, a large segment of the U.S. population has limited or no access to libraries. This segment is made up of people who are incarcerated or detained within the prison system.The prisoner population has severely limited access to libraries and information. Even when they do have access to a library or information materials, the quality of access is poor and their specific needs remain unmet.

This issue is further complicated when one takes into account the number of incarcerated youth. As of 2006, there were 92,854 persons residing in juvenile detention and correctional facilities in the United States. Of that number, 31,316 were youth 10-15 years of age.[4] “One-third of juvenile offenders read below the fourth grade reading level and about two-thirds of prison inmates are high school dropouts. With this in mind, it is crucial to recognize the need for libraries and literacy in juvenile correctional facilities.”[5] The inclusion of libraries and literacy programs in JDC are a vital component in providing incarcerated youth with the knowledge, skills and motivation to better themselves and bring rates of criminal recidivism down.

The number of incarcerated youth is also disproportionately made up of racial minorities. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Incarcerated Youth working in the Shelby County JDC in Memphis
Incarcerated Youth working in the Shelby County JDC in Memphis

Prevention provides data from 2007:[6]

  • For every 100,000 non-Hispanic black juveniles living in the U.S., 738 were in a residential placement facility on October 24, 2007 - for Hispanics the rate was 305, and for non-Hispanic whites it was 157
  • In all but 9 states, the custody rate for black juvenile offenders exceeded the rate for other race/ethnicity groups.
  • Nationally, the ratio of the custody rate for minorities to that of whites was 2.9 to 1.
  • In 31 states and the District of Columbia, the ratio between the minority-to-white custody rate was above the national average. In 7 states and the District of Columbia, the minority-to-white custody rate was more than 6 to 1.
This startling information shows that JDC librarians need to be cognizant of the sociological backgrounds that their patrons come from, especially in regards to race and ethnicity.

Juvenile Detention Center Libraries

Librarian Amy Cheney gives a tour of the Alameda County Juvenile Hall Library[7]
Kent County Juvenile Detention Center Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Kent County Juvenile Detention Center Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Impact of Literacy on Incarcerated Youth

It has been indicated that low academic performance, especially in literacy, has an impact on the likelihood of incarceration. Librarians have a unique position from which to attempt to bridge a gap between education and incarceration. Many reasons have been expressed as to why poor academic performance, lack of reading skills may lead to behavior problems which ultimately lead to incarceration (Christle and Yell 150-151).[8] Additionally, while poor reading skills alone do not cause youths to be incarcerated, one-third of juvenile offenders read below the fourth grade level and two-thirds of inmates dropped out of high school (Haynes 2)[9] .

Collections of studies relayed by The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center have shown that education during incarceration can be successful (O’Cummings, Bardack and Gonsoulin 4).[10] Librarians and libraries can collaborate with juvenile systems to provide materials to increase literacy, such as book talks and discussion groups, peer mentoring and providing the youths with the skills to properly utilize the library upon their release (Coyle).[11] The good news is that increased literacy may help. A Texas study showed an 11% decrease in re-incarceration of young property offenders that became readers (Martinez and Eisenberg 17).[12] .While this study is hopeful, others have noted that there are very few empirically sound studies to show the effect reading and literacy can have on preventing incarceration, re-incarceration and success as adults (Krezmien & Mulcahy 235).[13] There is a need, not only for libraries to be involved in reaching out and collaborating with the juvenile justice system, but for library professionals to scholarly display the need for this type of intervention, and the success it can achieve.

Collection Development

Our biggest concern was doing something that they wouldn't laugh at or be hostile about -- and that they wouldn't think was stupid. We knew that reading was "uncool" for these kids, but we also realized that they had nothing to do but read. And asking them their opinions and letting them talk about what they read was "cool."-- Librarians Kathy McLellan and Tricia Suellentrop[14]

One of the most vital aspects of developing a collection for incarcerated youth is making sure the collection will both interest them and be representative of their specific needs. This can be difficult since many JDCs have strict collection policies (no books with violence, sexuality or gangs) and limited funds. Often the materials that do exist within a JDC will be donated paperbacks or discarded books from a public library's collection. Rarely will these books address the information and entertainment needs of incarcerated youth. For example, one librarian trying to form a reading club in a detention center found that even classics that would be read in school were deeply problematic for her patrons, "I assumed that I could call on some old standards from my college English courses, but when reviewing stories such as William Faulkner's A Rose For Emily and other adult anthology standards, I found repeated racial slurs and stereotypical portrayals of minorities."[15]
Librarians working with incarcerated youth need to be aware of the racist representations of non-white characters in many books, and actively search for books that better represent their patrons.

It is also important to be ready to organize a JDC library differently than a public library. Amy Cheney of Alameda County Juvenile Hall, for example, organizes her library by subject matter rather than strictly Fiction and Non-Fiction. The most popular subjects in many JDC libraries are also different from what would be in a public library. Popular subjects include books about anger management, decision making, grief and loss, gang involvement, poetry, child and sexual abuse, and drug abuse.[16] Autobiographies and biographies are incredibly popular, and most JDC librarians agree that any book about a person rising above their place in life and getting out of a bad situation will go over well with their readers.

Recommended Texts

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah
A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago
Bad Girl: Confessions of a Teenage Delinquent, Abigail Vona
Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall
Monster, Walter Dean MyersAlways Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., Luis J. Rodriguez
Convicted in the Womb: One Man’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, Carl Upchurch
Dirty Laundry: Stories About Family Secrets, Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Ed.
Holes, Louis Sachar
Push, Sapphire
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeblancA Rose That Grew From Concrete, Tupac Shakur
The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah

  1. ^ "Prisoners' Right to Read." Intellectual Freedom Manual, Eighth Ed. N.p. 29 June 2010. Web. 27 November 2011. Retrieved from <>.
  2. ^ "ALA | Library Bill of Rights." ALA | Home - American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. Retrieved from <>.
  3. ^ "ALA | Core Values of Librarianship." ALA | Home - American Library Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. Retrieved from <>.
  4. ^ Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2006). “Persons residing in juvenile detention and correctional facilities by age group (number) – 2006.” Kids Count Data Center. Retrieved from
  5. ^ Libraries, Literacy and Juvenile Correctional Facilities. N.p. 19 November 2009. Web. 26 October 2011. Retrieved from <>.
  6. ^ Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection. “Custody Data (1997-Present).” U.S. Department of Justice – Office of Justice Programs. 22 April 2011. Web. 2 November 2012. Retrieved from
  7. ^ "How-To." Libraries, Literacy, and Juvenile Correctional Facilities. N.p. n.d. Web. 8 November 2011. Retrieved from <>.
  8. ^ Christle, Christine A. and Mitchell L. Yell. "Preventing Youth Incarceration Through Reading Remediation: Issues and Solutions." Reading & Writing Quarterly. 24.2 (2008): 148-176. Web.
  9. ^ Haynes, Mariana. From State Policy to Classroom Practice: Improving Literacy Instruction for All Students. Alexandria, Va: National Association of State Boards of Education, 2007. Print.
  10. ^ O’Cummings, Mindee, Bardack, Sarah, and Gonsoulin, Simon. “The Importance of Literacy for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Justice System.” //The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk.// 2010. Web.
  11. ^ Coyle, Joe. “Beyond Access, Beyond Literacy: Restorative Justice in a Juvenile Detention Center Library.” BOBCATSSS, Parma, Italy, 2010. Web.
  12. ^ Martinez, Alma I, and Michael Eisenberg. //Impact of Educational Achievement of Inmates in the Windham School District on Recidivism//. Austin, Tex: Criminal Justice Policy Council, 2000. Web.
  13. ^ Krezmien, Michael P, and Candace A. Mulcahy. "Literacy and Delinquency: Current Status of Reading Interventions with Detained and Incarcerated Youth." Reading & Writing Quarterly. 24.2 (2008): 219-238. Web.
  14. ^ McLellan, Kathy and Tricia Suellentrop. "Serving Teens doing TIME." Voices of Youth Advocates. 30.5 (2007): 403-7. Print.
  15. ^ Angier, Naomi and Katie O'Dell. "The Book Group Behind Bars." Voice of Youth Advocates. 23.5 (2000): 331-3. Print.
  16. ^ ELSEY:Extending Library Services to Empower Youth. N.p. n.d. Web. 7 October 2011. Retrieved from <>.