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Juvenile Hall and Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility Libraries

Contra Costa County Library
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Innovation Leader: Susan Lynn, Reading & Literacy Manager, slynn@ccclib.org

Problem Statement

Studies consistently show that there is a strong correlation between low literacy rates and incarceration. According to the Department of Corrections, more than two thirds of California's 173,000 inmates read below a ninth grade level, while more than half read below a seventh-grade level, making for a large, functionally illiterate jail population. In addition, because one of the best predictors of adult criminal behavior is whether or not the offender has been involved with the criminal justice system as a youth, and because it has been shown that prison based education and literacy programs are the most effective way of lowering recidivism rates, experts believe that providing services that improve literacy skills within the Juvenile Justice system positively impacts the future of incarcerated youth. Despite all of this evidence supporting library services, no funds were set aside to provide staff, materials, computers or furniture for a library when the County’s Juvenile Hall was built.

Innovation

In November 2006, thanks to a generous grant from the Lesher Foundation, the Contra Costa County Library was able to open a full service library at Juvenile Hall. This Library includes a large collection developed specifically to serve the needs and interests of the incarcerated teens, an online catalog that allows them to place holds on materials from their classrooms, and a DVD collection for staff. In addition, each of Juvenile Hall’s eight living units contains its own sizeable collection of books that the youth have daily access to, and finally, all residents leave Juvenile Hall with a Contra Costa County Library card. The Juvenile Hall Library proved to be so successful at encouraging the residents to read for pleasure, information, and entertainment that two years later a similar library was established at Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, a sentenced, minimum-security facility for teens transferred from Juvenile Hall.

Progress

In a survey done in 2007, 39% of the Juvenile Hall residents reported that when they first came to The Hall they did not like to read at all. However, after being incarcerated, 94% said they now love to read. This is documented further by the fact that in the three years the Juvenile Hall Library has been open, more than 60,000 books have been checked out, and in the single year Orin Allen has been open, more than 11,000 books have been checked out; that’s an average of six books a week per resident. Approximately 88% of residents at both locations have books checked out at any given time, and 42% of residents have books on hold. As a result, the teachers are reporting a marked improvement in both the vocabulary and overall literacy levels of their students, while the Probation staff is noticing positive behavioral changes. Perhaps most impressive of all is that every day staff members hear residents say that until they came to Juvenile Hall they had never read a book in its entirety.  Having discovered the joys of reading, many of the residents are becoming regular public library users upon their release.