Prison Libraries Committee

Feature Organization: Prison Libraries Committee

In All Posts, Feature Organization by Christie McLeod

While February is I Love to Read Month, for Kirsten Wurmann, Chair of the Prison Libraries Committee, literacy initiatives are an all-year goal! Check out our interview with Kirsten to learn more about the great work the Prison Libraries Committee is doing and learn how you can get involved!

1. Tell us a bit about the Prison Libraries Committee! How did it get started?

The Prison Libraries Committee is a very active part of the Manitoba Library Association and we just celebrated our fifth anniversary! I myself moved to Winnipeg in 2011 from Edmonton, where I had been actively involved in a similar committee (the GELA Prison Project – who continue to do amazing literacy work in Alberta prisons). Wanting to continue my work with prisons here in Manitoba, I called a meeting in June 2012, and the Manitoba Library Association -Prison Libraries Committee was born! We started first at the Winnipeg Remand Centre with our weekly “Open Library” program in November 2012. Then in March 2014, the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley asked for our help with their library programming, and we started a Book Exchange and later a Book Club as well.  The following year, one of our Prison Libraries Committee volunteers began a book exchange/library service at The Pas Correctional Centre. And just recently, in January 2017, we were again asked to help collect and provide books to folks inside the men’s Headingley Correctional Centre.

We strongly believe that thoughtful library programming and services, and access to meaningful, relevant reading materials can help improve an individual’s quality of life both inside and outside of correctional institutions.

We are a pretty passionate group of volunteers representing librarians, library technicians, library workers, and library lovers who believe that libraries have a role to play in contributing to social justice in our communities and that everybody should have unfettered access to information.

2. Are there any specific campaigns, projects, or initiatives you are working on right now that Winnipeggers should know about?

Our programs and initiatives keep us very busy in four different prisons in Manitoba:

  1. the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC) in Winnipeg,
  2. the Women’s Correctional Centre (WCC) in Headingley, Manitoba,
  3. the Headingley Correctional Centre (HCC) for Men, and
  4. The Pas Correctional Centre in The Pas, Manitoba.

Each of these prisons had no existing library or library service/programming before the Prison Libraries Committee involvement and yet, the need is great. All of our programs are popular and meaningful to those who are able to attend. We hear this each time we are inside – from our prison patrons themselves and sometimes even from the guards! 🙂

All of our programs are ongoing:

  • We go into the Remand Centre on a weekly basis
  • We visit the Women’s Correctional and The Pas Correctional Centres every 2 weeks
  • We bring in 25 boxes of donated books to sort and process at the Headingley Correctional Centre every 3 months
  • We run a monthly book club at the Women’s Correctional Centre.
  • Not to mention the hours of volunteer work to collect, sort through, process and box up books for delivery to and inside the various prisons!

We are occasionally able to bring in a special guest for an author talk or a writing circle – and are thrilled when we can pull that off and get the special clearance required. A very popular book sale to help raise funds for both the PLC and the Prison Ride Share programs is held every May at the Daniel McIntyre / St. Matthews Community Association (DMSMCA). Stay tuned to our social media for details!

One initiative that our committee has been actively involved with on a national level is the creation and writing of the Canadian Prison Library Network: Right to Read statement. This statement speaks to and asserts the value of libraries and access to information resources in correctional institutions and has been adopted now by the Canadian Federation of Library Associations. It has also been shared with the government, with library associations, and with correctional partners as part of a larger advocacy movement.

We are always looking for volunteers who can help with existing programs and services or might have ideas and the desire to implement new literacy programming. For further information, you can read more on our PLC webpage.

3. Can you tell us a story of someone who has benefitted from the work you’re doing?

In our work, we really try to help facilitate a space or create a special moment. That moment might be to learn something new, to (re)discover a book, to connect to an idea or a person, but also to bring a sense of civility and humanity into these institutions.

Many of these moments and connections have a story attached to them.  These folks are our community members – we might see them inside a prison, we might see them out in the neighbourhood, or we might see them in our public library. We see the palpable excitement of the women lining up to get into one of the unit classrooms set up for Book Exchange. They strain to glimpse what new books we are laying out on display and they ask for books ranging from “anything that helps when I get out of here” to “I just want to browse, chill, and read.” Requests are as varied as James Patterson to Gabor Mate, from The Driver’s Handbook to The Alchemist, from Paradise Lost to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

prison libraries committee logoLast year, we decided we needed a logo for our committee. We turned to the many talented artists at the Women’s Correctional Centre and offered a cash prize to all those who participated (which was then deposited into their canteen accounts.) The winner received a little bit extra, and she came up to our Book Exchange volunteers so excited and proud about contributing and winning: “she was glowing and all her friends on the unit were very proud of her.”

Our book club also provides a lot of opportunity for a deeper engagement in the books and the reading. Popular books are true stories about people who struggle and then ultimately overcome their adversity and personal barriers. A number of intense discussions have resulted where some of the book club members can talk openly about child abuse, about parenting, about “messing up”, and the impact that had on themselves and their families. By reading fiction, and memoirs they are then able to identify things they want to improve and the things they hope for in the future.

4. What’s one of your favourite things about Winnipeg?

Winnipeggers have a long history and passion for social justice and they have been so very generous with their support of thePrison Libraries Committee, both with open minds and hearts and in giving their time and their money. Local authors and artists have been equally generous and available for book talks, and writing circles.  We’ve been thrilled to have had writers like Katherena Vermette and Niigaanwewidam Sinclair visit the Remand to talk about writing, and stories, and community. Sinclair was able to tell those in attendance that their stories are important and that people want to hear their stories. In such a setting, this is potentially a very powerful message to hear.

We organized a visit by Beatrice Mosionier (who wrote April Raintree, a consistently popular and well-read book at all the prisons we serve!) to the Women’s Correctional Centre. Her visit was especially powerful and she was able to meet with about 50 women including some in lockdown/segregated units where they had to open up their food slots in the doors to hear her speak and share the stories that so many could relate to. We hosted local singer/songwriter Scott Nolan at a couple of the prisons and he shared not only his songs but his stories. He also told folks about how writing/telling our own stories can be helpful and cathartic.

Such generosity of time, of talent, and of spirit.

5. What do you think is a big human rights issue that Winnipeg, as a city, needs to address?

While it is problematic that the number of incarcerated individuals grows as crime rates drop, I really think it is critical that we acknowledge the role of prisons within a social and political system of ongoing colonialism. The Indigenous populations make up a percentage of the incarcerated population that is much higher than their proportion of Canada’s general population. This is a result of decades of discriminatory policies across the country. In Manitoba, this means some institutions have Indigenous populations as high as 80%. The Prison Libraries Committee has identified this as a human rights issue in our Right to Read statement but we also work very hard to bring in books and resources and programming that speak to the Indigenous histories, cultures, and languages. The overpopulation of our Indigenous community members inside Manitoba correctional institutions must be addressed, not to mention the systemic racism that exists in many, if not most of our large institutional systems in the province.

6. If Prison Libraries Committee was given a $1 million dollar donation right now, what’s one way you would consider using it?

Despite the fact that we are all volunteers, we strongly believe that correctional institutions should be funding literacy, libraries, and library professionals. We also think it is important to make the prison library service and project-planning community-led and collaborative, which means including and involving the prison library patrons in collection development and program planning.

All of the work we do should be funded. $1 million could help build real, physical library spaces and consistent, relevant library programming, not to mention fund efforts for successful reintegration, which the Prison Libraries Committee would argue includes libraries and literacy.

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