Behind Bars: How a Music Librarian Went [Back] to Prison

Submitted by Laurie Phillips, University Librarian for Information Resources, Loyola University New Orleans

Editor’s note: The following story was inspired by a collaboration to serve an under-resourced population, as shared to MLA-L earlier this year.

When I arrived as a music and media cataloger at Loyola University New Orleans in the summer of 1990, one of my duties was to help catalog the library at the Work Training Facility South at Jackson Barracks, a nearby minimum security prison. Loyola had begun offering non-credit classes at Jackson on such topics as creative writing and street law through a program initiated by now-retired Judge Calvin Johnson, and Jack Nelson, who was then a distinguished professor at Loyola’s School of Law.

While preliminary cataloging work had been done, I helped choose the card printing program and established a workflow. Jackson Barracks had a one-room library with shelving along two walls, primarily consisting of popular fiction. In a time before laptops and cellphones, we gathered information for cards to take back to the Loyola library, where we completed catalog card printing, using tractor-feed printers that would print the cards in perforated strips that we would separate and bring back to the prison every couple of weeks. I believe it was organized by author and title, but they may have separated fiction and nonfiction. 

In terms of accessing the prison, I don’t recall being offered any kind of security briefing, though shorts and tank tops may have been prohibited by dress code. I enjoyed interacting with and getting to know the incarcerated men there. Many were serving sentences for infractions that wouldn’t even carry prison time now. We participated in post-class celebrations with the students’ families, and I still have a printed anthology of the students’ written work, produced under the auspices of Dr. Mary McCay, who was then chair of Loyola’s English Department. 

Over thirty years later, I’ve had a second opportunity to facilitate library services in a prison. This time, however, I’ve had much more direct involvement in various aspects of support for the program, located at Rayburn Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Angie, Louisiana (87 miles from New Orleans in the furthest northeast corner of the state). My involvement came about through conversations with Dr. Annie Phoenix, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI), and Jason Ezell, who was then our Associate Dean for Learning & Engagement. Dr. Phoenix approached us after attending a webinar about librarian collaborations, offered by Loyola’s Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning. 

When we first spoke in the fall semester 2022, the Rayburn program had begun with one cohort of 20 students and was about to add a second in Spring 2023. The program is not yet degree-seeking, but plans are underway to gain accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). This program is run like the Bachelor’s in Applied Science offered by Loyola’s City College, but instruction takes place in-person at Rayburn, not on our campus or online. It must be accredited as offered, and one course is offered per semester to each cohort, including summer terms. The program runs under the auspices of JSRI, under the direction of Dr. Stephanie Gaskill, a JSRI faculty fellow. At that time, the Rayburn program had no learning management system or online resources to offer, so in our initial meeting with Dr. Gaskill and Dr. Phoenix, we discussed information literacy instruction, course materials, and library resources. The program now uses an instance of Moodle that is whitelisted for the students and offers courses in a hybrid environment, with readings, assignment prompts, video, and discussion board offered online. Lectures take place in the facility, with instructors driving to Angie to teach once a week. There is no wifi available in the classroom and instructors may not bring in devices, but there is a smartboard, and students do have access to their devices during class. The devices connect only to whitelisted sites and the USB and HDMI ports are blocked. Early on, I asked Dr. Gaskill about the physical library collection at the facility and whether any of it could support our students. She recommended that I should visit and assess the collection. It took several months before we were able to arrange that visit. 

Our first attempt at information literacy instruction was conducted in a no-tech environment, with students meeting one-on-one with librarians and discussing research interests and strategies.  Librarians followed up by sending printed articles with Sarah Allison, a tenured faculty member in Loyola’s English department, who taught onsite. I was supposed to be one of three librarians conducting those consultations but became ill and was unable to participate. Since then, we’ve been able to offer teaching through LearnMax and Moodle.

For a summer course, one of my colleagues provided articles to help students select from three possible research topics (focused on adult learning), but Dr. Gaskill wanted more of an introduction to searching in different tools for them. Additionally, the students had gotten access to JSTOR in Prisons and immediately informed their instructor it looked very different, not only from other databases, but because this product differs from JSTOR’s standard version. With the Moodle instance used for these courses, the students now have access to a remote, secure videochat function (LearnMax), and we thought we might be able to use that, with me teaching from the JSRI offices on Loyola’s Broadway campus, using a staff member’s computer, and the students in the classroom all on their devices with headphones. The test Dr. Gaskill conducted with her students a week before my scheduled session failed, probably due to internet infrastructure issues, so we decided that I would record screen capture tutorials using Kaltura. Our Kaltura setup is integrated with Canvas, but this program is separately using Moodle, which works better with the state Department of Corrections’ chosen technology provider (ATLO), and they cannot link to outside resources. I recorded three tutorials for them, using Kaltura, which I then downloaded and shared with Dr. Gaskill in Google Drive. She uploaded the tutorials to her Moodle course. The first one demonstrated how they might search, using Google, Google Scholar, or the Library’s discovery service, for the topics that they could choose from on adult learning. I showed how to shape search strategies, based on what was initially retrieved, how to combine terms using Boolean operators, and how to evaluate what was retrieved to determine what might be useful in a paper. 

My second tutorial focused on the differences between JSTOR and EBSCO databases, and what is contained in JSTOR (and what isn’t) and how that affects searching in JSTOR. The third was a very specific tutorial on how to use the JSTOR Access in Prisons product. Ithaka, JSTOR’s parent company, gave me access to the product for one week so I could learn how to use it and create training. The product only has one main search box and very few facets, but allows for fairly sophisticated Boolean searching and limiting via terms added to the search. The students search, using these techniques, then can apply a few limiters after the fact, and may submit requests for articles. Once an article is approved by a central administrator, all students at the site have access, which helps build their library of content over time. Approval of articles also expands the snippets they see where their search terms are matched in a given article. At present, not all of the students in our program have access to the computer lab where the JSTOR product can be accessed. 

At the end of August I was finally able to visit Rayburn in person to evaluate it. I also got to visit with our students and see the classroom and environment. A few of them commented that, although they have never met me, they recognized my voice from the tutorials. I’m a classically trained singer, so my speaking voice is resonant and distinctive! Unlike my earlier experience, security is much more stringent and the dress code is strict. We were provided with a Department of Public Safety & Corrections training video, which I have watched several times, about dress code, conduct, and what may be brought in. We cannot take in laptops or other devices, including our cell phones.
The corrections staff and the library staff (all incarcerated men) could not have been more welcoming. The corrections staff made sure that the library staff were all available to meet with me. I met with three men who constitute the library staff, one of whom works primarily with the barracks/dorm libraries, which are less controlled than the primary library. The library is one large room with two study tables, each with six chairs, shelving along two walls, and an additional 2-3 ranges of free-standing shelving. Sadly, their shelving rusted after the library was sprayed with disinfectant during COVID. There is a work area with a service desk, a desktop computer for the staff with their catalog, a desk where they can do repairs, and a small DVD collection. The wall facing the hallway is half glass. Only 12 men are permitted to be in the library at one time. The staff told me that the library is a go-to spot for leisure activities, so popular that the corrections staff must occasionally ask inmates to leave so others may have a turn! Each person in the facility is allowed to check out two books at a time so, if the person doesn’t return a book, they cannot check out more until they return what they have. 

We began collection evaluation with three supplies: paper, pencil, and their Dewey outline (I’m a cataloger, but have worked almost exclusively with Library of Congress classification!). They have a decent collection of reference materials, although their large format dictionary was falling apart. Their WorldBook encyclopedia set is from 2015 , but an update is prohibitively expensive. They have some basic texts in philosophy and religion, although almost nothing in foundational psychology, an area for which we plan to offer courses. Their nonfiction consists of either popular titles or dated textbooks. Some books were so dated that I pulled them from the shelves. They have only one textbook for their German class–the same edition I used as an undergraduate in the 1980s! They have a small but dated classic literature collection and a large but well used popular fiction collection. Working title-by-title, I asked about user habits and requests, resulting in a wish list from each staff member. Commonly requested topics include African-American and African history, language textbooks and dictionaries, and updated popular fiction. They also requested repair supplies. Because they’re unable to replace damaged items they need supplies to perform in-house repairs. They asked for cloth tape, glue, and a spine press. They also requested a barcode scanner in order to do inventory. 

Thankfully, I found options among my library’s supplies to meet their requests, such as buckram, cloth tape, and glue. I also ordered additional items from Amazon, such as glue brushes, and I bought wax paper and small containers for glue and water at Target. I sourced a USB barcode scanner from Loyola, and we will supply shelving to replace their damaged shelves. But because my repair knowledge is limited to pamphlet binding (which I do for music scores), I contacted Alice Carli, conservator at the Sibley Music Library, for advice. Based on our inventory, she advised which supplies could meet their needs, and offered to send instructions for the library staff. She also offered to meet via Zoom, though we had to decline due to security requirements (no phones, no wifi). While I hadn’t met Alice personally, we both shared a Sibley connection, as I worked there during grad school and for a year-long AMLG grant doing retrospective conversion. I’d also attended graduate school with Alice’s husband! Despite having never met in person, our collaboration is a testament to the generosity of the library community, especially among music librarians.

For the prison collection, I have two goals. Primarily, I would like to add both literary fiction and scholarly non-fiction that will support the students in our program. The current collection has almost nothing that will supplement their coursework, so I would like to update and diversify their literary fiction collection. I have been working with our English faculty, at least one of whom has taught in the program, to get recommendations of authors and titles. I have gone through our textbook adoptions and have gathered titles of books that faculty are using in their classes that are not traditional textbooks. I’ve reached out to groups of faculty for recommendations and donations, and have posted a request for targeted donations on social media. I even went through the books of two retired history professors and brought back about half of a book truck full of books on the Civil War, Restoration, the civil rights movement, and the development of African American intellectual thought. I’ve solicited and received some great management, leadership, and entrepreneurship books from College of Business faculty. I continue to receive donations from individuals and I am carefully culling those. I was able to send up two large collegiate dictionaries, which should fill an immediate need. I sent five boxes of donations up to the prison with Dr. Gaskill, and although the corrections staff have been incredibly open to donations, several items were rejected. Sadly, they are on race and racism, a topic that our sociology professors will be teaching. I did not feel that these books were controversial or might incite discontent, but apparently, they did. I sent seven more boxes of books and a box of repair supplies in early October.

My second goal is to supply some of their wish list items. That may be easier, although I find that many of my reader friends either don’t buy print books, or read authors that don’t match the wish list. Nevertheless, I will continue to gather books and send them up. I am also working with the director of the Washington Parish Public Library (the parish/county in which the prison is located) to secure some of the more popular reading items that they requested.

I have also been closely involved with digital equity efforts at Loyola and in the state, so Dr. Gaskill and I have been working with Rebecca Kelley, on the LOUIS staff. LOUIS is our state academic library consortium. Rebecca has been connecting us with the state’s digital equity plan development and brought the JSRI staff into that conversation. We met with her recently to brainstorm ideas for how we might leverage some of the federal money that is coming to the states for digital equity. Incarcerated people are one of the named populations served by the plan, so we have a couple possibilities there. Workforce development, rural populations, and minority populations are also named in the plan and may apply to our program for corrections staff working on Loyola degrees. That is a separate online program but also offered through JSRI. The Department of Corrections has offered incentives for pay and promotion potential to employees who obtain a bachelor’s degree. It also serves the purpose of not excluding the corrections staff in the opportunities for higher education. I attended a pre-conference workshop for the LOUIS consortium about these grants and the money that will be available. We may need to choose among two to four possibilities which will have the most impact. 

I went back to Rayburn at the end of October to meet with the library staff about the repair materials I had sent, among other things. We also took one library shelf, just so they could test it and see if it would fit on their shelving frames and work in that setting. We still haven’t figured out how to take loads of shelving because it’s heavy and we have to get it into a car from where it’s been stored. We’ve been carpooling so as not to take too many vehicles to the facility. When I arrived this time, there were five men who work in the library waiting for me with the box of repair supplies open on the counter. I stopped there first and we went through the whole box and I explained how each item could be used. They were so excited! They asked me for a few other supplies, including a craft or tackle box to sort their small fiction labels. They had never seen a bone folder and were surprised it had been allowed in. They asked me about the barcode scanner I had sent and how it would work to do inventory. I explained that, while I have system admin experience, each system is different and I couldn’t be sure. It turns out that they do have a manual for their catalog system, so they were going to study that. They showed me how they had tested the range of the scanner out of the cradle and that it worked far better than we first thought it would. When I stepped out, they immediately emptied a shelf and tried the new shelving. It worked! It fits on their frames a little easier than the ones they have (the rounded hooks slide in more easily), but is slightly less deep and theirs actually slope down to the back a bit and ours don’t. I’ve sent about ten shelves since then and, so far, we’re sending them assembled and a few at a time, but that may change. 

While the men went to eat, I slipped into Dr. Daniella Santoro’s classroom next door. She is teaching an anthropology course that is part of Loyola’s core curriculum. She and I had decided to introduce her students to the Israel-Gaza conflict through an exercise I do with my students on news evaluation from left, right, and center. Dr. Santoro and I picked the headline roundup on the humanitarian aid being allowed into Gaza. The three articles were from Politico (left-leaning), Wall Street Journal (center), and National Review (right-leaning). I introduced the exercise and had the men work (divided into three groups, each with a different article) with a worksheet that I had developed for them. I asked them to say if the article was fact/analysis/opinion or a mix, list the facts presented in the article, identify any emotionally-charged language used, and who was quoted and how (sympathetic, condemning, etc.). I then asked them to consider how all of that made them feel about the people or groups or events that were being described.We had a lively discussion about the events and people and the articles. The right-leaning article was particularly discussion-worthy as they described Hamas as Nazis and terrorists, while the others were more careful with language to remain more neutral. The students, who are working on self-ethnographies, were also encouraged to seek me out for research help, and one student did. I’ve since been in touch with the public library in their area, as they come across interlibrary loan requests, probably from our students, that are for academic resources that we might have. 

While Dr. Santoro finished the rest of the material for the evening, I returned to the library, where I discussed who I was working with to obtain donations and any new wishlist items that I may be able to fill. They asked for books in Spanish, books about business planning and starting a small business or nonprofit organization, books on addiction, drawing, music theory, learning to play guitar and piano, and horticulture. This was the first time I had heard a request for music theory and pedagogy books, so that was exciting! I’ve spent time, since I returned, contacting faculty in music, business, languages and studio art, to arrange for donations. I’ve also taken a second (or third) pass at the donations we have, to see if any will fit their collection. I sent six more boxes of books to the facility last week, along with a jewelry bead sorter that will work for their labels.. They also asked me about how to classify a book that didn’t have CIP and was tricky to place in DDC. They asked if I could supply them with a Dewey classification volume. But I did better! A colleague from Northwestern University sent me the entire four volume DDC 22 and I’ve already sent it to them, along with the cataloging record (with the Library of Congress supplied Dewey class number) for the book they were struggling with. While I was there, I also discussed the possibility of creating an academic reserve section for the sociology methods course in the spring. The library staff were all for that! 

Having had all these experiences, I’m seriously considering how I might teach in the program. Right now, I teach a media-driven first year seminar that would not easily adapt to the prison environment. I’m sure I can create an adaptation that would work, but it will take time. I would need to provide news articles to work in class and just use slides and downloaded video for lectures. I’ve also been inspired after attending the third annual convening of the Mississippi Consortium on Higher Education in Prisons. We heard from two formerly incarcerated young African American men who have succeeded tremendously thanks to the education they received. One of them was a Bard Prison Initiative graduate featured on the documentary College Behind Bars. As he noted, it’s not about rehabilitation, it’s about educating people to where they can see a way to live that’s different from what got them to prison.” According to the statistics he presented, incarcerated students don’t even have to be degree-seeking to realize a positive effect. The lessons we learned at the convention have echoed in recently-passed Louisiana legislation (House Resolution No. 174) creating a task force to study the landscape and efficacy of correctional educational programming in our state. Loyola will, of course, have representation on the task force, as will the Board of Regents, so we hope that more will come of this program in the future.
I feel like we’re barely at the beginning of a really cool program, but I’m thrilled to be a part of it. It’s satisfying to make contributions to the program’s development, support the students, and assist them in gaining accreditation to make it a degree-seeking program. All these efforts have been, and will continue to be, a fulfilling part of what I do as a librarian.