The Academic Library in Prison Higher Education: Merced College at Valley State Prison and Central California Women's Facility

By Karrie Bullock, Merced College

Academic librarians are familiar with wearing many hats, and when I was asked to be the department liaison to the prison program, I was intrigued to find out what that would look like. The Merced College Incarcerated Student program serves two prisons located in Chowchilla: Valley State Prison (VSP) and Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).  The college has expanded class offerings since 2016 and serves approximately 500 students, offering 33 sections between both prisons, and has a steady retention rate of 96%.  Most recently, Merced College began initiating transferable degrees in partnership with Fresno State and VSP.  Overall, this is a very successful and rewarding program for students, faculty and the college.

I became involved with the incarcerated program in Fall 2018. I began with a search through the literature and found very little available through publications, listservs or conferences that offered insight into how the academic library, specifically community colleges, functioned within the prison setting.  Much of what I have adopted and modified has been from public and prison librarians.  The unique population of incarcerated students posed challenging obstacles: for delivery all items must be in print, and items must pass through evaluation with the correctional officers. There is no internet and, at the time of this newsletter, no computers for typing assignments or downloading documents.  There is very limited access to the prison library due to overlapping work schedules and open library hours. These are just a few of the many,  though not insurmountable, barriers to library access.

Merced College faculty and administrators began working on a handbook to guide shifting policy, identify provisions for equitable access, and outline standards and rigor of the college curriculum, with a provision for library policy and access to resources. Regarding library policy, we will lend physical items to the prison but due to the recent COVID-19 closures, our policy discussion has not been resolved.  The discussion hinges on questions like who is responsible for items collected and returned to the library, what commitments can prison librarians and prison education managers make to determine storage or what to purchase to support Merced College students, what are the rules for check-in and check-out of material (student ID, how long a student can check an item out, how the student would select the book because they have no internet or access to the catalog, etc.). Also, there is the issue of the online databases and prison librarians’ access to these resources—due to vendor licensure, we could not offer the prison librarians log-ins to the college library databases.

To address the ways the library can support the incarcerated student and faculty, I devised a research request form, and library policy for incarcerated students, all of which can be found through a research guide. The research request form offers space for students to identify their information need (the assignment), review an example of a research question, and then frame a written research question. In February 2020 we held a successful workshop attended by fourteen faculty and three prison librarians, with an opportunity to collaborate and discover ways that the librarians could help meet the needs of faculty and students. We outlined the research request form, library policy, and gave an overview of important information literacy concepts specific to their discipline(s). As an information literacy example, we printed handouts that describe different characteristics and types of information students might request, tying them into the ACRL Framework and library SLOs. The prison librarians were very helpful, offering critical insight into how they help patrons locate information, and when they interact with our students. As previously mentioned, database access is not something we can give prison librarians, though I see this becoming a weightier issue moving forward. The workshop lasted three hours, and there was much spirited discussion around the challenges of locating curriculum, teaching information literacy and information evaluation.

Within two weeks of the workshop, we received 30-40 research requests. The requests take a considerable amount of time, averaging between 20-30 minutes each. I will often delegate the forms to other librarians, but due to the short turnaround time of five working days the job often falls to one person. Two months into the semester we have done over 90 unique research requests for our incarcerated students. Due to the current national emergency, I do not know that we will see many more for the remainder of the semester as the incarcerated college programs have been moved to a correspondence delivery, but many instructors are providing the form in their correspondence packets. Student feedback has been very, very positive, and they appreciate the librarian feedback we write on the research request form. The form also works well for revising their request if they didn’t like the resources they received, and students are encouraged to send in another form with different keywords or concepts. Instructor feedback has been positive: they appreciate the tight turnaround time, printing of resources and delivering it directly to the prison or the instructor.

Issues and trends I have noted include an increase in faculty requests for information "packets" but this is not exclusive to prison teaching.  I see this trend of requesting librarians to develop curriculum, especially for remote, "off-site" or distance education environments. Faculty are asking us to develop information packets, with info literacy concepts baked in, but without the ability to teach those concepts. For example, evaluating sources: faculty are asking that we develop multiple packets on topics within their discipline (5 different articles on a given topic), and then covertly include one article that has propaganda or fake news on the topic, but without a clear rubric for identifying why it is fake or misleading. These requests I am happy to help with, but I don’t always feel that this is my role (I am not the instructor of record), and that I am doing a lot of heavy lifting for an instructor.  Other issues are: prison librarians in the role of academic librarians; copyright, computers and vendors in the prison; equity of resources between the men and women's access to resources, and many others. I find it surprising that there is very little literature devoted to the academic librarian’s role in the prison higher education environment, but I will say that the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation is a difficult, often obscure system to coordinate with. In the interest of moving higher education into these off-site, highly bureaucratic environments, I believe these issues should warrant greater discussion, and academic librarians are on the front lines of those discussions doing important and rewarding work.