Comment: State, local libraries rebuilding lives after prison

For those leaving prison, a library card is key to starting again. A new program offers that key.

By Steve Hobbs and Sara Jones / For The Herald

Nearly 7,500 people each year, on average, return to their communities after serving state prison sentences in Washington, according to Department of Corrections data for the last decade. Many of them face numerous challenges as they re-enter society, including establishing financial stability, reliable housing and transportation, and access to community resources, such as their local public library.

Washington has 378 public libraries statewide, including 21 in Snohomish County; two of which are in Everett. Public libraries offer informational and educational programs that can help formerly incarcerated people successfully transition back into the community, including access to the internet, health and social services and job-search and skills training.

Recently released inmates, however, are often reluctant to enter a library out of concern they might have to disclose their past when applying for a library card, especially if a Department of Corrections card is the only form of identification they possess.

At the Washington State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State, we believe it is critical to help people who have paid their debts to society make a seamless transition to freedom. We must deliver practical solutions to break down those barriers and enable people to live more fulfilling lives.

In 2016, Gov. Jay Inslee prompted state and local agencies to collaborate on improving outcomes for people re-entering society. The State Library’s Institutional Library Services — which has operated libraries in state correctional facilities for more than half a century — partnered with the DOC and public libraries to register people preparing to re-enter society for library cards with their local libraries before they are released.

This Institutional Library Services’ initiative encourages participating community libraries to provide prison librarians with physical library cards for inmates as they prepare for release to their home communities. The state library registers the patrons with the respective community library’s website and issues a library card. The patrons can use it upon release without having to contact or visit the library to set up an account.

The prison libraries also provide patrons with information about community libraries’ services and help local libraries alert their patrons to other useful resources. Each local library shares information about its offerings with the state libary, which recommends specific resources to meet each patron’s individual needs and interests.

All participating public libraries maintain patron confidentiality, which helps reduce any sense of stigma a patron may feel re-entering society.

Today, nine public libraries and library systems work closely with the Office of the Secretary of State to open their doors to former inmates and offer free, unfettered access to vital community resources. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with these libraries and their leadership, including Everett Public Library Director Abigail Cooley and Sno-Isle Libraries Executive Director Lois Langer Thompson, to bring a world of imagination and lifelong learning to people who are formerly incarcerated. To date, the Institutional Library Services and our partner libraries have activated nearly 300 patron cards for people preparing to re-enter communities.

This is among several hte state library’s initiatives to support people who are incarcerated and their re-entry into society.

• In 2022, we opened the first library in a state juvenile rehabilitation facility at Echo Glen Children’s Center in Snoqualmie. Within the first month, 92 percent of residents checked out materials. The state Legislature just approved funding for a library at a second state juvenile rehabilitation center in Chehalis.

• We are working to expand civics curricula for adult inmates so they have the resources to vote when their franchise has been restored.

• The Department of Correction is now allowing role-playing games at their institutional libraries. Studies have shown that role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons can enhance social and emotional learning.

We believe these initiatives empower formerly incarcerated individuals to enhance their quality of life, which can help reduce recidivism and strengthen communities. Washington’s public libraries look forward to being part of these community members’ support systems.

Steve Hobbs is Washington’s 16th secretary of state. As head of one of the most diverse offices in state government, Hobbs is responsible for managing state and local elections, corporation and charity filings, the Washington State Library, Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, Washington State Archives and more.

State Librarian Sara Jones oversees the Washington State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. She develops and leads strategies that enhance public access to library materials, collections, and services; and safeguards the state library’s role as a historical asset and repository for government documents and publications.

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