19th October 2009
After a few false starts, the SALIN-organised tour of the Adelaide Women’s Prison Libraries finally took place for 7 lucky participants. We all gathered outside the imposing security gates at precisely 1:30pm and were buzzed inside where we handed over our bags, phones and keys and donned our visitor passes.
We were greeted by our three hosts – Eddie, a Case Management Coordinator at the Prison and our tour guide; Julie, the Coordinator of Volunteers for the Department for Correctional Services (DCS); and Abby, the DCS volunteer who works in the library. Eddie explained some of the rules for entering the prison and then we were off.
We entered the prison through the admissions area where new prisoners are first taken. Here they are given a thorough physical and mental examination. Staff also address any needs outstanding in the life the prisoner is leaving, such as ensuring the rent is paid or bills are paid, or the children are looked after.
We then proceeded through the main part of the prison to the ‘Fishbowl’. Here the correctional officers work and monitor the prisoners in the cells. It was a very busy place with movements occurring and correctional officers going about their business. From this point on we were always accompanied by a correctional officer as we moved around the prison.
Our guides then led us to what is known as the ‘Mainstream Library’, the first of two libraries we would be seeing on the tour. The library is a tiny room that opens off a tidy green courtyard. A prisoner was quietly tending to the garden when we arrived. The library is very basic. The core collection, which consists of fiction, lines one wall of the room while a very small collection of only 50 or so non-fiction books occupies a shelving unit on the opposite wall. There is a desk and a few tables and chairs but no comforts or niceties that welcome most library users. But it’s a start!
I asked Abby how many volunteers she has that work in the library and was taken aback when she answered that it’s just her. She comes in a few hours every Monday afternoon. Abby explained she is fairly new to the prison and that she is currently trying to upgrade the books available. Her first task was to sort out the collection, weed out the incredibly old, tatty and uninviting items and tidy the rest. The fiction has now been sorted into shelves under broad subject areas such as Romance, Australian Authors, Mystery and so on. This makes it easier for the users to locate an item of interest.
New and recent items are a hit with the library users, but very few are in the collection. The prisoners were recently surveyed as to their areas of interest and responded with:
Fitness & Health
Art & Craft
Subjects like true crime and other ‘inappropriate’ material such as books on Satanism are not usually permitted.
New magazines are also appreciated, titles like Woman’s Day, New Idea, Cosmopolitan, Who, Dolly and Women’s Health. Magazines do arrive in the library from various donations, but they often arrive at least 6 months out of date. Some are also received from a newsagent in Mount Barker via a volunteer in Murray Bridge.
At this stage the library has no regular opening hours. The hours depend on the prisoner assigned as library assistant and when they decide to open the library. When Abby is in attendance, the door is locked behind her but she hopes in time this will change and she will have some contact with the users so she can discuss their library needs with them.
Literacy skills are often an issue and having items at a range of reading levels is a goal of the library, but one hampered by the lack of funds.
We then moved on to the Education Centre. Here the prisoners can improve their computer literacy skills by using Microsoft Office programs and other software. No access to the Internet is allowed. Some prisoners undertake TAFE studies and part-time teachers come to the Education Centre to deliver classes and tutor students through their studies. Other DCS volunteers do help with internet access or education at times.
We travelled across the prison, past the sports courts and the garden areas to our next stop, the Living Skills Unit. This area is a more open plan living style for those prisoners who have earned the right to a bit more freedom. Here they live in cottage style accommodation, manage a small budget for purchasing their own food and incidentals, and can enjoy family visits.
The library is situated in the large open visiting area and is again a rather small collection. Just 6 or so shelving bays containing the same type of fiction we previously saw in the Mainstream Library. It is also crying out for updating – new titles, more up-to-date material, and new magazines. Eddie tells us he knows that one prisoner housed here has read every single title and can describe what happens in each book – if ever there was a need for some new material!
It was obvious to all of us on the tour that the libraries at the Adelaide Women’s Prison need help. Julie explained that there is no funding for them to buy new resources, and they rely on volunteers to undertake any work, not just at the Adelaide Women’s Prison but at all the prisons including Yalata Labour Prison, Mobilong Prison at Murray Bridge and the Adelaide Remand Centre.
So how you can help?
Ultimately, best-case scenario would see a public library choosing to enter into a partnership with the prison library. This partnership would entail the public library lending the prison a range of books or allowing the prisoners to request books from its collection for 2-4 week loans. The details of the arrangement could be worked out between the two libraries. Mobilong prison has a similar arrangement with the Murray Bridge public library that works quite successfully so this sort of partnership is possible. If you are interested in this, call Julie, the Volunteer Coordinator on 8440 3608.
If a partnership cannot be established, there are other ways you can support the prison libraries:
• Volunteer your time to help out in the libraries
• Donate books from your own personal collection at home
• Donate magazines you’ve recently bought and finished reading
• Organise a book drive at work and donate the books to the prison
• Do a whip around at work and use the raised money to go out and buy a new book to donate
• If your library bought some multiple copies of a recent best-seller and you are going to now weed some of those out of the collection, consider donating a copy to the prison libraries.
• Are you organising a library event that has an entrance fee? Why not ask the attendees to bring along a new book instead and then donate the books to the prison
If you plan to donate books and magazines, please consider the users of the Prison Libraries before you do. The prisoners may be in prison, but that doesn’t mean they want to read any old rubbish that you wish to dispose of. They want to feel like valued members of society too. So, new or recent material that is in a good condition is preferred. Like any library, the prison strives for the best quality collection it can achieve. The Department for Correctional Services is grateful for any assistance or support that you or your library could provide. They are willing to arrange to collect any material from you to save you a drive or the postage.
It has long been identified that low literacy levels amongst prisoners may have been a factor in prisoners offending in the first place. The Minister for Correctional Services and Minister for Volunteers, Hon Tom Koutsantonis MP has recognised the connection between recreational reading and increased literacy and has placed focus on increasing literacy levels amongst prisoners and offenders in the community. Minister Koutsantonis is actively encouraging the improvement of library and education resources in prisons, but your support is needed to make this happen.
The tour of the Women’s Prison Libraries was amazing. Not only was it a real eye-opener to step into a world that many of us never see, but it was very interesting to see the resources available to the prisoners in the libraries they have very irregular access to. The staff inspired us with their passion and commitment to the people and the place and we thank them whole-heartedly for allowing us the privilege to see these small libraries that have such huge potential for growing lives if only they had the necessary resourcing.