Should Ex-Cons Have an Opportunity to Work in Libraries Too?

anonymous_lineup_lib_sWould you ever hire an ex-con/felon (formerly incarcerated person)—to work in a public library? That was the question posed on a prison library listserv a few weeks ago. The exact question was,

I have received a question from a prison librarian in Ohio regarding the hiring of ex-felons by a public library. These individuals have been working as inmate library clerks. They have the skill-set for circulation desk and book shelving duties. Also they have entered new book titles into the library’s catalog database and managed circulation records. They have been dependable staff members. Would your library consider hiring ex-felons?

Since prison librarians are a minority and often not hiring formerly incarcerated people to work in public libraries, listserv members thought it would be useful to find out what others, particularly public librarians had to say. So I posted it to three listservs.

Before you answer that question, ask yourself, “If they’ve served their time, and there are no other obligations relating to their crime (e.g. staying away from children) are libraries legally able to discriminate against ex-felons? ”

The responses posted by listserv members ranged from “Once the person is released from prison, the debt to society is supposed to be paid…If anyone were to call me on hiring a felon, I would tell them, “Don’t you believe in second chances?” to “I would rather not hire an ex-felon…Sorry, that’s part of the deal when you break the law”.

As expected, the consensus among prison librarians was “yes”, they would hire a qualified formerly incarcerated person. One commenter stated,

Prison Library Clerks are like everywhere else.  Some are excellent, and some are awful.  I have a range right now.  I have worked in law school libraries in the past.  Knowing what I now know, selectively, yes, I would hire felon clerks.  If I were to go back to being a librarian, there is, currently, a clerk I would hire, outside, at the drop of a hat.  He is smart, dedicated, and a hard worker. 

The responses received from non-prison libraryland people can be put into two categories, (1) It depends… and (2) Yes

IT DEPENDS…

The largest group of responses fell under “it depends”. What does it depend on? Well, “the type of crime” (obvious answer). So no, someone with a history of embezzlement might not be appropriate as a desk clerk in a public library if they would be expected to handle money regularly. Also, considering the number of youth that use libraries, sex offenders would not qualify for jobs there. That said, remember, a bulk of felony convictions have nothing to do with those.

What was interesting and alarming about the “it depends…” responses is that several commenter’s emphasized things like it would take “a lot of convincing” or an “unanimous Board of Trustees decision” because these statements implied, that formerly incarcerated people needed to almost be superhuman.

YES

The number yes responses were few. There were some that began as “yes”, but quickly veered in to the “it depends…” discussion. That being said, my favorite pithy yes response was,

Sure, why not? Petty cash is counted, security is maintained, children are supervised, security is available. Why not give someone who already has the skills a chance?

What I admire about this statement is that it implicitly acknowledges the communal responsibility to make sure that people returning the community are provided with the appropriate mechanisms to encourage and support a positive life style.

THERE IS STILL HOPE

For many in the library world, the question provided at the onset is merely hypothetical. However, for the hundreds of thousands of inmates released from United States prisons every year it is their reality. One respondent’s statement, “Most of the inmates that I’ve talked to about job applications tell me that they don’t want to answer that question on the form because they are afraid they won’t ever be given an interview” highlights the fear that formerly incarcerated people have about job searching after reentering the community.

A few people shared stories about formerly incarcerated people working in public libraries:

…The library I worked at had several ex-offenders who worked there.  I know this because the persons talked about being incarcerated.   This was particularly true for people who were open about being in recovery from addictions…

…a clerk who worked for many years at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility was hired by Denver Public Library.  Madame X was at DPL taking photos that became our video, “Out for Life: How Your Library Can Help.”  … He told her how working at AVCF got him the job at DPL. It was one of those great “we ARE making a difference!” moments but we’d never have known if he hadn’t self-identified.

…been involved with an inmate work program in a partnership with a local corrections facility. In the Private Sector Work Program (PSWP), low-risk residents from the Adult Corrections Facility have an opportunity for paid temporary employment at various community employers, including our library during their time served. The program has been very positive in building work and pro-social skills. The library currently has two permanent employees from the program.

CONCLUSIONS

The statements made on the listservs suggest that although slim, formerly incarcerated people do have a chance at using the skills gained through working in the prison library to seek and obtain employment along side colleagues in public libraries.

Although some may (as one person on the listserv did) highlight the fact that notable figures like Martha Stewart are convicted felons, the reality is, most formerly incarcerated people are not Martha–white, wealthy, woman. Furthermore, although as one person noted, all job seekers are protected from employment discrimination under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the reality is that having been imprisoned impacts whether or not a person gets an interview, much less a job offer.

WHAT NOW?

Moving ahead, the next step is to find out how often qualified formerly incarcerated people are/aren’t getting hired, understanding the barriers and trying to create and replicate  mutually beneficial opportunities.

If you want to see the aggregated comments click on the link below

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2 comments to Should Ex-Cons Have an Opportunity to Work in Libraries Too?

  • Paul Studdard
    June 9, 2015 at 7:35 pm | Reply

    I was an academic science librarian for 11 years until I screwed up and was forced to plead guilty to a third degree felony in 2004. I lost my family, my freedom and the respect of many people. After many years of therapy and probation, I am a free man. Will anyone ever give me a chance to prove that what happened was a stupid mistake and that I am a good person and a good librarian? I have two masters degrees and am qualified for plenty of library jobs, and have applied to hundreds of them over the years with no success. What should I do?

  • WilliamCend
    May 6, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Reply

    Hey, thanks for the post.Thanks Again. Will read on…

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