I Don’t Want Incarcerated People to Feel Cut Off From the World

Librarian networks are trying to get books in the hands of people locked away in prisons and jails

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Mia Bruner is a 29-year-old librarian and founder of the Prison Library Support Network (PLSN). She spoke with Mai Tran about the difficulties of providing resources to incarcerated people during a pandemic.

Prison Library Support Network was founded in 2016, after Donald Trump was elected. I was a student and library clerk at the Pratt Institute, and I quickly found others who were interested in using our skills and institutional assets to support prison abolition movements and share resources with incarcerated people.

The heart of library services in prisons and jails is pushing a cart around and handing people books. In March, the library services were shut out, and they haven’t been let back in. Some librarians are mailing out books to people who requested them, but those might get sent back. I’ve heard there are all sorts of weird restrictions going on right now. Across the board, facilities aren’t doing anything systematically, like enforcing consistent rules about mail. There is a lot of haphazard regulation, so people are being cut off from their loved ones.

Their biggest obstacle is having nothing people want to read on the book cart.

People don’t always know that public library collections and the collections in jails are totally different. The collections in jails are very, very underfunded. Some library systems have zero to no money for new books. One thing you hear over and over from people who work in jails is that their biggest obstacle is having nothing people want to read on the book cart. They become another service that doesn’t have the resources to respond to people in an immediate way.

In January of 2020, PLSN launched a new reference project to help librarians in jails answer questions, compile packets, and print out materials about whatever people wanted. We get letters all the time asking how to start small businesses or people wanting lists of resources for housing support in particular areas for when they get out. Some of the letters I answered were sent a year prior, and that really put into perspective how information-starved these places are. Covid-19 put a paralysis on that whole project. There’s no way to reference anything, and that can cause so many problems. There were communication infrastructures that organizers worked really hard to set up, but Covid-19 just blew it over when it was already unstable. With the new barriers, incarcerated people can’t ask librarians or anyone for information about community resources.

Mass incarceration is confusing to talk about because it’s purposely set up in an overly complex way, and things vary depending on facilities. The prison industrial complex is supremely skilled at hiding what incarcerated people are going through, but we’ve also seen huge growth in interest and active engagement from people on the outside during quarantine. We held a fundraiser, and within its first two days, we were able to meet our initial goal of $6,500, which was way more than we ever expected. We’re having a panel where three staff members from different library systems talk about how their work has changed since Covid-19, and 120 people registered, compared with maybe 10 or 20 people registering for events pre-Covid.

When the pandemic happened, we saw an outpouring of energy for our volunteer reference project. That took a whole year to organize, and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to sustain it. The pandemic and all the following conversations about abolition has made it really clear how critical it is that our work directly connects outside people to incarcerated people. It’s pushed me to focus PLSN on work that does that. People showing up for our project in a way that is so sincerely coming from themselves makes me really excited about the possibility of having a big enough collective to establish an autonomous library service, something that isn’t affiliated with the state but that has sustainable resources.

writer based in new york

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