How Washington’s Institutional Libraries provide help and hope

How Washington’s Institutional Libraries provide help and hope

All libraries transform. But as you walk through a prison for the first time, you may realize the unique value a library can provide within such an intense environment. An inmate seeking to transform needs hope and resilience to overcome the challenges of building a better life.

But where are hope and resilience in prison? Some find them in the environment’s solitude. Others find these qualities in religion. Others may seek them through education. For any of these paths, the library can offer a space where peace, laughter, and a dose of hope can carry on into the next stressful venture of the unique challenges Institutional Library Services patrons face.

There are numerous examples of how Institutional Libraries in Washington State Prisons and State Hospitals transform, inspire, and offer hope. Below are a few stories the Institutional Library Services team wanted to share.

Connecting inmates and their families with resources

“A patron approached me (the Institutional Librarian) and explained that he had been transferred from a facility in another state.  He had never been to Washington, and didn’t think he could find it on a map, but his wife and family were going to move to be near.  He had no idea where to send them for housing, schools, and other essential needs, but he really wanted to help. 

“I provided housing options near the facility and other community resources.  He later came to the library and told me that thanks to the information, his family was able to get settled close by and could visit and provide crucial family support  for him in what was for him a difficult transition to a strange place. “

The importance of literacy, community, and programs in prison libraries

“A couple of years ago when I (the Institutional Librarian) first started, two patrons approached me. One of them struggled with reading and was looking for ways to improve. He had graduated from high school without truly learning. He was functionally illiterate and trying to prepare for release.

“The library started a book discussion group just for people who struggle to read. At the end of the first discussion, The Giver by Lois Lowry, several participants said it was the first book they’d ever read all the way through. Since the discussion, the friend’s reading comprehension has improved. He has become a group leader.”

At another prison, the Institutional Library created a weekly reading group for patrons who struggle to read several years ago. 

“Most of the participants learned they were transferring to another institution. One group member who was remaining thought the group was ending. He sat looking stunned. Others reassured him that there would still be a reading group even after the others left. He looked at the floor for a few seconds, then looked up with tears in his eyes. He said the reading group had been one of the best things that had happened to him in a very long time. The group is sad to see these long time group members leave but determined to continue reading together. This shows how libraries create communities and have an important impact.”

The least prison-like space

Multiple Institutional Librarians reflected on patrons who come to the library to be in the space which feels the least prison-like. The library can host laughter, knowledge, healthy interactions, healing, and a place to transform oneself. Some may not check anything out, but find joy in reducing stress from the prison environment. Others load their arms with as many books as they can carry and sit in the library with books and reentry resources spread out, taking notes. The Institutional Libraries provide versatility.

“A young woman required intervention and care at the state hospital.  She was very frightened by the experience and astonished to find a library on campus. She spent as much time as possible at the library reading books and magazines. After her discharge, she returned to college to complete her education. Later she returned to the hospital as an employee. Today, she is very active with mental health advocacy in Washington by speaking with elected officials about mental health needs from a patient’s perspective.”

Reflections on worth

From Coyote Ridge Corrections Center: “When Patricia Briggs came, some patrons said they couldn’t believe a famous author would visit ‘someone like me’ — i.e., felons.”

From Clallam Bay Corrections Center: “When I (the Institutional Librarian) supervise inmate library workers, I focus on teaching, gratitude, and ‘real-life’ job skills. There is often a moment of vulnerability where someone says, ‘I didn’t realize I could actually do that.’”

Institutional Libraries serves people from all different walks of life, which means being well-versed in many subjects and knowing how to guide people through topics they may hesitate to ask about. We answer a whole range of questions that are vital to individuals seeking to understand their history, identity, and experiences to change their narrative.

Institutional Libraries and re-entry tools

“We have provided re-entry resources since 2006 to help patrons discover resources, create plans, and understand challenging systems. I (the Institutional Librarian) helped a patron through his third release six months ago. He had not bothered to make a re-entry plan the previous two times, but was determined to make this time different.

“He heavily used the reentry resources and our ex-offender books our branches collect.”

The Power of Language

“The Baby Reads program is a storytime in the Residential Parenting Program Unit at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. A couple years ago, one mom expressed interest in teaching her son their tribe’s language. She didn’t speak the language and needed resources. I (the Institutional Librarian) contacted her tribe, which provided CDs and literature to help introduce the Native language to her son. In the first three years of life, the brain is undergoing its most intensive period of acquiring speech and language skills.”

To learn more about language acquisition and the endangerment of Native languages, visit​

More than Books

“A middle-aged patient with a long history of manic episodes and hospitalizations was committed to a state hospital. He visited the campus library weekly for relaxing music. He enjoyed the library’s atmosphere so much, he sought employment there. As a clerk, he was instrumental in the Library’s new Art & Poetry exhibit.  After his discharge, he trained as a peer counselor and visits to mentor others about life outside the hospital.”

A Space to Inspire

“A quiet state hospital patient spent his spare time reading fantasy novels, completed his treatment plan, and was released.  Nobody knew he had been inspired to write his own fantasy novel during his stay. He self-published his fantasy novel and was honored with a reception where he was previously a patient. He gifted the library two copies of his novel. The patient publicly praised the librarian for his weekly outreach services.”

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