January 10, 2022

Four Questions with Dr. Jeanie Austin

Book cover featuring painted portraits of six faces of different ages and races, with "Library Services and Incarceration" in block print below
Dr. Jeanie Austin's book on the history and future of libraries and prisons.

Dr. Jeanie Austin holds a PhD in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. They are an expert on library services and incarated individuals and the barriers to information access faced by the growing numbers of people in prison and how libraries historically both increased and impeded information access in prisons and about how we can move forward. They were kind enough to answer a few questions for us about their work and about prisons, libraries, and their work. For much more from Dr. Austin, check out their appearance on the Library Punk podcast!

You have a book just out called Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access. What barriers to library services exist that we might not even be aware of for the incarcerated?

Incarcerated people experience myriad barriers to access. Some barriers include the cost of books versus the wages paid in prison, and restrictions to specific vendors—these are highlighted early on in this episode of Ear Hustle (starting around minute 4). Another clear concern of prison librarians is that there is not often dedicated funding for prison libraries, and many prison librarians are acting as both legal and recreational librarians (if a recreational library is even available). Barriers may vary by facility or by where a person is held within a facility. People in restrictive housing, solitary, or under suicide watch may not be allowed access to any books. Access to materials related to being Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, sexuality, and materials critical of incarceration are often subject to censorship or other restrictions, which is a major disconnect given the ways that systemic oppression leads to incarceration.

We know a lot about the barriers to ebook access in libraries. How does this play out in carceral settings? 

A very immediate barrier is the lack of access to materials that are born-digital. There have been instances of people who are incarcerated being charged by the minute to read (see Eldon Ray James’ article here, and the ALA Resolution in Opposition to this here). The most prominent companies that provide content through tablets either charge for the tablets or charge for access, and incarcerated people have no guarantee that they will be able to keep the materials they purchase through tablets or other technology. Even when companies say that they offer access to eBooks, the collection offered may be completely composed of books in the public domain. As of Jan 1, 2022, this primarily includes books published in 1926 or before. Anecdotally, these public domain collections contain materials that reflect the prominent biases of their time, some of which are blatantly racist.

Librarians talk a lot about the “digital divide,” which is a controversial but pervasive term. What does the “digital divide” mean when applied to the incarcerated? What other digital content, if any, do prisoners have access to, and what does the future look like?

There is digital content in some prisons, and the large prison technology companies are actively pursuing new contracts with prison systems. As mentioned above, incarcerated people are often charged for access at rates disproportionate from their income, and families struggle to afford basic access. Access to technology has been one of the main ways that incarcerated people have been able to maintain contact with their families during the pandemic, when in-person visits with family have largely been paused. Some people who are incarcerated have only seen their families or support networks through monitored video visits since March of 2020. Others have not seen their loved ones at all.

As the pandemic continues, it is very likely that more tablets are going to be distributed in prisons. Librarians need to consider how they might make library materials available to incarcerated people, including digital literacy programs. While some promising work has been done about supporting formerly incarcerated people’s digital literacy after incarceration, including by Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, Toyama, and Dillahunt and by Magassa, we really need more research and examples informed by the actual experiences of currently and formerly incarcerated people.

Your book title ends on a more hopeful note: strengthening access. Can you talk a bit about what has been done in terms of access and who is working toward that goal?

A major point I make in the book is that the patron bases of almost all types of libraries include people impacted by incarceration. A recent study found that one in every two American adults is directly impacted by incarceration. We are two decades into what has been termed mass incarceration, and yet libraries have not often responded to the ways that incarceration shapes many facets of life in America. This affects our patrons and silences library staff who are also negatively impacted by incarceration. 

That said, there is a very inspiring shift underway in Library and Information Science, from ALA under the direction of Executive Director Tracie D. Hall to a grassroots level actions among practicing librarians and LIS students. There is energy to reimagine library services for people who are incarcerated and to critically engage with library services more generally. This is made possible by foundational efforts like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and by scholars in LIS who are discussing race and racism and information access. Librarians are considering ways to share their library resources with prison libraries, creating innovative programs for people who are being released, building Reference by Mail networks to provide information to incarcerated people, promoting local resources that don’t lead to incarceration, and more. It is likely that many libraries and librarians are doing this work, but that, for one reason or another, it isn’t in the record. My hope is that it becomes more possible for libraries and librarians addressing incarceration to be networked with one another, to be supported in their efforts, and to be able to share their models and best practices in order to increase the level of services that are available.

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