A Prison Librarian’s Guide to – Working with “Lifers”

Ok! I know, that is a weird title.
“Lifers” or people serving a life sentence, can’t just be bundled in to one category for whom there are particular rules for dealing with them, of course not, but in this blog are some of the things I have learned, over a long career of working within prison environments, that I thought best fell under that title.

– Full disclosure, I am a librarian who has struggled to categorise this blog, and that title is the best I’ve got!

Throughout my career as a Prison Librarian I never had any training on the psychological/relationship/understanding side of how to work with people in prisons. I had a big chunk of Librarian training under my belt and was given a chunk of training when I began volunteering in prisons on security logistics around what not to do/bring in/say/reveal/act, but the rest of it, around how vulnerable some of the residents would be or what it can really entail to face a prison sentence and how that effects someone is just something you sort of…picked up as you went?
That seems a bit ludicrous to reflect on now. I must say there feels like there was a gap – many other departments drew on specialists in their recruitment;- psychologists who’d studied criminology, teachers who specialised in teaching adults and had an understanding of supporting learners with extra needs, Officers whose training was entirely designed for this setting. This was not the case in the library. As a librarian they looked for someone who could…be a good librarian. What this line of recruitment led to was a library that reflected any community library you could walk in to on any high-street. A Library filled with book lovers, local people, “How can I helpers” and “Nothing is too much troublers” staff happy to help with no pre-conceived ideas or judgments about who you are and what you are doing here. The library I worked in was a haven in that way. It didn’t feel like you were in a prison at all. Along with all the accolades of things we had achieved, that is one I thought we should all be most proud of. That we’d created, and continued to create, a real library, right in the middle of this most challenging of places.

So the below that I share with you does not come from a learned, studied place, it comes from someone who sort of just navigated things and who now hopes that some of the things I have learned along the way may be useful to others. I am open to criticisms, queries, different views but I do hope some of it will be useful to other Librarians working in prison settings.

In England a life sentence means you will serve at least 15 years of your sentence before facing parole. Data from the Prison Reform Trust shows an average sentence in 2019 was around 4.8 years.
Everyone’s ‘Prison Journey’ is different, depending on type of crime committed, sentence given and other factors such as what stage of life they are at. Many who find themselves facing a life sentence will spend some time in a Therapeutic Community tackling some of the psychological issues relating to their crimes. In the environment I worked in you had people on recalls doing months right through to lifers with no end in sight for parole dates and progression.
The mixing of these sentences together has it’s challenges.
15+ years is a long time, and then you’re faced with options like attending an 8 week education course on money management – when you wont be managing your own money for another 14 years and 10 months! Or working in a prison workshop for the foreseeable future, feeling miserable, not progressing, not inspired. If you come in on a shorter sentence your plan can look quite meaningful, you need to focus on something personal for example; Anger Management, so you attend that course, then depending on your plans for employment on release you begin to look for opportunities to develop your skills and knowledge to ready yourself for employment (I over simplify but you can see how a shorter sentence may provide a more clear pathway at least) for a lifer how do you even begin?
This isn’t about “using your time in prison wisely to support your life going forward” This IS your life, this is your home for the next 15+ years and you need to find meaningful and purposeful activity to, of course, progress through your sentence but also for that not to be the sole focus. You need to find meaning right here and right now or you really aren’t going to make it – this isn’t just something you can grin and bear for a couple of years, this is your life. That, to me, is what separated those serving long sentences to shorter ones, and where I felt the library came in to its own.
This is your library, in this place where you live, you can help buy the stock and shape the services and talk about books or politics or maybe the weather with civilian staff, in a room lined with books you can read for pleasure and escape – not to pass a course or progress your understanding but just to be. To be a reader. To be a library member. To be a part of a community in the way anyone is who takes the time to support their local library.
I know people who have said they want to read the Top 100 BBC Recommended reads or all the classics or some such goal – well, a lifer can make that commitment and see it out here, with us.
I know people who have been part of a book group for years and years and years – well, a lifer can join our book groups and stay with us here, for years.
I know people who have sat in their local library and written their thesis, their first novel, their life story – well, a lifer can do that right here, with us.
We are not a course or a three month programme. We are “lifers” too.

Libraries are SUCH an important part of the life of those doing long sentences because…we are long lasting. Yes we have new ideas, new displays, new courses, options but the core of what we do; providing a safe space to learn and to read for pleasure as well as ‘purpose’ will always be at our core. There will always be a place for you. We aren’t a time pressured, time relative, sentence progression activity you can tick off. We are part of your community, your routine and your life.

Below are some things which I slowly started to collect in my back pocket over the years, things which I felt it was important to be mindful of when working with people facing long sentences and some of the small things we as Library Staff can do to support those issues.

  • Remembering that it is likely they have had more breakdown of romantic, family and friendly relationships which are incredibly difficult to maintain in their circumstances.
    Can your library offer services, like Storybook Dads, to support family ties?
  • They may have a phase where there feels like there is no reason for them to “buy in” to the system because there is no end in sight.
    “Ownership” feels really important here, could your library involve the residents in buying stock or furniture or creating displays?
  • They have an identity outside of being a “lifer” which they might sometimes forget, or you might sometimes forget.
    Books and book group discussions are a great way for reaching people and talking across issues and divides, many people shared their own stories through book group or creative writing groups. Having a creative outlet is so important for wellbeing and having a sense of identity, so where you can, host book groups, debate groups, writing groups.
  • They can be at risk – they are likely to have experienced suicidal thoughts, particularly in the early stages of their sentence, they may have challenges with drugs and alcohol which leave them vulnerable.
    As you would in a public library make access to information regarding the support available prominent in the library for all users to see/take away
  • They are vulnerable to radicalisation if they are looking for a sense of self identity and belonging (something which is more likely if they are facing a long sentence and have lost contact with family and friends on the outside) Talk to other staff. If you are worried about someone talk to others. You have a duty of care for people you work with which goes beyond feeling like “it isn’t my place/business”. Many of the people we work with are vulnerable, signpost them to services that can help and share your concerns with colleagues and seek advice.
  • They are very focused on the detail of their sentence and their upcoming parole – as library staff we can navigate this by learning about prison rules and processes to support their queries.

This isn’t a blog about the services libraries can offer to support people’s rehabilitation as such, I could write for days on the importance of library delivered projects like Shannon Trust or Open University, about the impact libraries have on supporting people back in to education and employment, but this isn’t so much about the “What next?” of prison life, it is about the “What right now!?” You can’t spend 15 years planning for what comes after that time, you need to live now.
It sounds a bit grand, but I truly believe that Libraries are part of that puzzle (along with other great creative, therapeutic, progressive services) in prisons, which allow people to live their life meaningfully, with hope for a future alongside real engagement in the present, because without that I am not sure how you begin to plan for the future.

A Prison Librarian’s Guide to – Working with “Lifers”