There but for the grace of God…

Allegheny County Jail, 2013

Allegheny County Jail, 2013

As of 2011, there were 1.6 million inmates in America. That’s 492 inmates per 100,000 residents.  America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We’re number one!

I’ve been doing this:

In March, 2013 staff from across CLP launched a one-year pilot [Literacy Unlocked] in which we deliver onsite programming and library services to Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) residents and the families visiting them. This project involves programming for inmates, children’s story times and other interactive activities in the Family Activity Center during Saturday visitation and training from ACJ staff to library staff about how to best serve this population upon release.

I teach Financial Literacy classes.

*Let’s all pause while we reflect on the irony of me teaching Financial Literacy classes.*

I kid, I kid, it’s an FDIC-approved curriculum, with fancy PowerPoints and teacher guides.

There are many fascinating and sad and scary things about teaching at the jail:

  • To even get into the building, you have to do a lot of paperwork. I had to get my Pennsylvania State Criminal Record Check (which, contrary to popular belief, I passed) and an Institutional Clearance Profile.
  • I also had to complete a sort of terrifying Civilian Training at the Allegheny County Jail which included subjects such as “How to Avoid a Con,” “What To Do In a Hostage Situation,” and “How to Avoid Rape.” Being told to “humanize” yourself and go to your “happy place,” does not inspire confidence.
  • Every time I go I do something wrong and make the guards mad. It almost always involves standing in a line. This makes visiting somewhat nerve-racking.
  • You’re not allowed to wear red. When I tell people this, their first response is, “Oh, it will get the prisoners all riled up.” Because they are like bulls? For real? No, it’s because the prison uniforms are red.
  • You never, ever forget for even one second that you are in a jail.
  • Some of the inmates are so young it breaks your heart.
  • This was my first teaching experience. I nearly died in anticipation and anxiety waiting to teach my first class. I secretly wished I’d get hit by a car to avoid it. It turns out I’m actually a good teacher. I even had a student tell me I was “the real deal.”
  • I am always  grateful and appreciative for what I have, but being in the jail really drives homes the fact that I basically won the American genetic-socio-economic-education jackpot. That is depressing.
  • Hard drugs are no good. Mandatory sentencing is no good. A lot of things about our prison system are no good. This is also depressing.
  • I have done a ton of rewarding work as a librarian. But for some reason this project really speaks to me. I’m so proud to be part of it.

Further reading:

AmericanFuriesAmerican furies : Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, Sasha Abramsky

Did you know that most prisons no longer have the goal of rehabilitation? In his expose of the U.S. prison system, Sasha Abramsky demonstrates, with thorough research, how our prison system is more punitive and vengeful than ever before. It includes information about prison conditions, sentencing guidelines and the treatment of juveniles.

YouAreGoingtoPrisonYou Are Going to Prison, Jim Hogshire

Considering the insane rate of incarceration in this country, someone you know is probably in jail. This book is a survive prison “how-to” manual that includes information for prisoners and families. From arrest to death row, Hogshire gives real life advice about everything from being in police custody to jailhouse etiquette to death by lethal injection.

InvisiblePunishmentInvisible Punishment : The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, Marc Mauer & Meda Chesney-Lind

Sixteen essays explore the economic, social, and other consequences of imprisonment. The contributors focus not only on prisoners, but also on the unintended fall-out for families of inmates, especially children. The essays all approach the topic from different angles, but all are very critical of mass incarceration.

MarkedMarked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, Devah Pager

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if a former inmate can’t find a job, they’ll end up right back in prison. The point is really driven home by Pager’s innovative experiment in Milwaukee: attractive, capable applicants- and ex-offenders- were sent out to find jobs. Less than half received call-backs, demonstrating the difficulty for recent parolees in finding legitimate work.

WhenPrisonersWhen Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry, Joan Petersilia

Dr. Joan Petersilia is faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and has written 11 books on crime and public policy. Her research has fueled not only discussion about parole reform and prisoner reentry, but has changed nationwide policy. In this book she includes prisoner profiles, how we help and hinder prisoner reentry, and what we can do to ease reintegration.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu



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14 responses to “There but for the grace of God…

  1. spearvahn

    To add to the Reading list : “The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” – Michelle Alexander
    To add to a Movie List : The House I live in

    • spearvahn

      And I meant to say, Terrific blog post – my first response was going to be like, like, like, everypart like :)

  2. Fascinating post, fascinating subject matter and project. Kudos! Stay when you visit!

  3. Meant to say stay SAFE when you visit…not stay…sorry.

  4. The education system is also broken. We just can’t be a nanny state.

  5. You’re our mission statement incarnate, Suzy – engaging the community in literacy and learning. The ENTIRE community. Hats off to you and everybody else involved in Literacy Unlocked. <3

    Leigh Anne

  6. Val

    why is it that every single blog post you write inspires me to say, God I LOVE you. You ARE the real deal.

  7. Kristine Sekely

    I really appreciate your honesty and humor. Thank you for this inspirational post.

  8. Great post, Suzy. We are so proud of the work you and your colleagues are doing in this program. Thank you.


  9. Allegheny County Jail, 2013 is one place I hope to never see! Thanks for this post and looking forward to more!

  10. NJS

    When you connect really connect with another person it is a truly wonderful experience. When you connect and inspire, help,give comfort,or in any tiny way make a difference in another persons life then it becomes one of life’s greatest rewards.Just think it can start by something as simple as giving up your seat on a crowed bus.

  11. Eric

    Really, REALLY good stuff. Thank you for posting this.

  12. sucieq

    Great stuff! I enjoyed about teaching in this environment – fascinating.

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