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Free to Learn – Public Library Services for Ex-Offenders
Denver Public Library, COGo to Website
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Free to Learn is a weekly, staffed, two-hour computer lab specifically for women who have been incarcerated. Participants use computers for whatever they need, but can also receive individualized instruction from the staff on topics ranging from basic computer use to online job seeking and resume writing.Innovation Leader:
Melanie Colletti, Librarian, email@example.com
Ex-offenders need jobs. Employment is usually a condition of parole. Like other job seekers, ex-offenders need help writing resumes, or simply developing the basic computer skills necessary for filling out online job applications. Finding work in this economy is a challenge, even for those possessing unique skills or college degrees. Job seeking is particularly daunting for felons because many employers refuse to hire a candidate with a criminal record. To complicate the situation further, State prisons in Colorado deny inmates internet access, so even a relatively short incarceration can affect an ex-offender’s ability to conduct an effective job search. Visits to the women’s correctional facility by Denver Public Library staff revealed that many women in prison had never seen or used a flash drive.
Halfway houses and parole officers sometimes discourage or forbid library use because there is no way for them to verify their clients’ whereabouts. Unfortunately, libraries offer one of the only free venues for computer access, high-speed internet and the freedom use a computer for a variety of tasks. Workforce centers also provide job help but not basic computer instruction, and programs do not necessarily meet the specific needs of ex-offenders. Community reentry programs help ex-offenders with strategies for creating resumes, responding to employers’ questions about convictions and interviewing techniques, but these facilities are part of the correctional system and ex-offenders report being put off by guards, metal detectors and a lack of gender specific programming. Workforce centers and Department of Corrections programs primarily provide computer access for educational purposes and job seeking only.
The problem was twofold: We had to find a way to get ex-offenders to the library, and then we had to figure out how to help them get jobs.
Free to Learn began as a grant funded project in 2010. Since State prisons do not provide internet access for inmates, and since the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility was fairly close by, we designed the project for women. We theorized that visiting women in prison just prior to their release dates would be the best way to find participants. In the beginning, librarians scheduled individual appointments during prison visits hoping women would come to the library immediately after their release. In fact, very few women were able to come to their prearranged sessions, usually due to obligations that were conditions of their parole. As a result, library staff began reaching out to area halfway houses for women. To date, most Free to Learn participants reside in halfway houses.
To resolve the issue of no-shows and to reduce the number of librarians and volunteers involved in instruction, we moved to an open lab format. Some participants were proficient enough to check and send email and apply for jobs on their own, and it became awkward for instructors to sit and watch them in certain cases. Open labs started as a kind of experiment, but the shift has kept the program sustainable, even after funding ran out.
At the same time every Wednesday, any woman who has been incarcerated can come to the lab and use a computer. Individualized instruction from the staff and volunteers is provided on an as-needed basis. The labs satisfy the requirements of the halfway houses and the parole officers because they are staffed and supervised. Verification calls are made to case managers who require them.
Free to Learn librarians also connect with other community organizations and Colorado Department of Corrections. Having contacts at these agencies allows the library to participate in community efforts to prevent recidivism, to share resources and to make better referrals.
Denver Public Library closely tracked the progress of participants during the program’s first year. All 40 participants left the program with a resume and a personal email account. Of the 31 women we reached for follow up at the end of last year, 24 had found jobs and two were taking classes at Community College of Denver.
Most participants described a reluctance to talk about their criminal backgrounds or to seek assistance with issues related to their criminal record because of shame and embarrassment. However, librarians cannot effectively help ex-offenders if they do not know about these issues, especially in the context of a job search. By creating a space and curriculum specifically targeted to this population, Free to Learn diffuses much of the shame that an ex-offender might feel in seeking assistance in a library setting. As one Free to Learn participant said, “Having a felony record is hard to talk about. It’s embarrassing. But I’m not embarrassed to talk to you because you are trying to help me.”
Throughout the program’s outreach efforts, librarians heard from community agencies, individuals, and ex-offenders that they were unaware of all of the services that the library offers. As one Free to Learn participant said after a tour of the library, “You mean all this is free?” We now know that a key element of serving this population is outreach and marketing – through visits to prisons, halfway houses, and other agencies; through fliers and pamphlets left in places frequented by ex-offenders and those who work with them; and through word of mouth among the ex-offenders themselves.
Free to Learn seeks to be a model for other libraries creating ex-offender programming by sharing strategies and techniques for best serving this population. Denver Public Library hopes to offer a men’s program in the future.