ECI library an escape for prisoners

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by Clara Vaughn, courtesy of Delmarvanow

June Brittingham goes to work like any other librarian, in a building with posters on the wall, a carpeted floor and books arranged according to the Dewey Decimal system.  The only difference is she passes through a metal detector, series of automated sliding doors and pristinely gardened prison yard on her way to work.

The library at Eastern Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Westover, Maryland, serves a population of around 3,400 inmates, though only those who seek its services go there.  For that small percentage, the building is an oasis amidst incarcerated life.

“It’s the one place they can come to for 45 minutes that is not prison,” said Brittingham, who also serves as Maryland’s supervisor of correctional libraries. “We don’t have bars on our windows— we have carpeted floors, we have colorful bookshelves.”

“Even though they’re locked up here, they can experience anything through books,” she said.

ECI’s library opened with the facility itself in 1987, Brittingham said.  It provides invaluable resources for inmates, from its career center to legal documents that allow them to do their own research before trials.

The library also supplements ECI’s educational programs, providing resources for inmates studying for the GED, for example.  But the annex symbolizes much more for those serving their sentences.

“It’s the one place I can go where I leave prison,” said one of the inmates, who cannot be named to protect victims involved in their cases.

The library looks and feels like any public library, and patrons check out up to three books for two weeks at a time using a barcode on their ID badges.  Prisoners read the same books as those on the outside do, from the “Harry Potter” series to “The Alchemist” and “The Communist Manifesto,” Brittingham said.

She runs her library alongside four clerks, who are also inmates in the prison, charged with manning the reference desk, processing book requests and helping with other daily tasks.  “It gives you joy to be able to help somebody to get what they need to get a little bit farther in life,” the circulation clerk said, adding, “anyone who doesn’t take advantage of the library is at a loss.”

While the library offers books and research tools, it also hosts in-house events, such as weekly book discussion groups led by students and professors from Salisbury University.

Dr. Jennifer Jewell, director of the undergraduate social work program at the university, volunteers weekly and said the library is “transformational” for both the inmates and herself.

“Most of us are working to change our way of thinking, our old habits, old lifestyles,” said a six-year participant in the groups. “These groups are… a place where we can find trust and common ground and be able to deal with issues that are painful and real.”

“Most everybody is in that group is going to go back into the community,” he added. “How can you make your community better?”

While ECI’s library provides a temporary escape from prison life, its main purpose is to address that question.

Making the transition into society “as seamless as possible” includes everything from career readiness to teaching prisoners to avoid bank fraud from family members, Brittingham said, explaining that inmates are most likely to reoffend when they face a crisis.

The library provides a hub for that preparation.

“The library is the one place that I believe can help most of the guys here, especially the younger inmates,” one book group member said. “Education is key for them and this is the place they’ll learn that.

“When they see the older guys in the groups, they see that it’s OK to do these things— it’s okay to go to school. It’s okay to not follow the crowd,” he said.

Throughout her 23-year tenure at ECI, Brittingham has seen some inmates return to the prison, but others go on to thrive outside its walls, she said.  “There are success stories, and every once in awhile I get a phone call from someone who has been released,” she said. “Those are the things that make it all worthwhile.”

To donate books or magazines to ECI’s library, contact Brittingham at june.brittingham@maryland.gov.

(Photo credit: Staff photographer Ralph Musthaler)