In a previous blog post I interviewed Jeanie Austin of the San Francisco Public Library about their new book on providing library services to incarcerated people. With the restoration of Pell funding for incarcerated students set to take place in 2023, the field of higher education in prison (HEP) is currently grappling with how to prepare for this long-awaited expansion of funding and opportunity, and academic libraries that wish to serve this student group must likewise prepare to meet their needs. Ithaka S+R is focused on ensuring that college programs that operate in prison are high quality and provide their students with an education that is equivalent to that which on campus students receive. Yet operating a college program in prison is no easy task, not least because Departments of Corrections (DOC) often strictly control access to information through the exercise of media review and by placing limitations on access to technology (e.g. banning access to the internet).

In the face of such constraints, providing access to library resources and services can be a challenging endeavor. Having librarians dedicated to serving incarcerated students, however, can make all of the difference. Below we talk to librarians Jessica Licklider and Jeannie Colson from Lee College about their work providing library services to their incarcerated students, as well as the resources they have compiled at to help HEP programs think more about the library as an essential partner and element of program quality.

photographs of Jeannie Colson and Jessica Licklider

Jeannie Colson and Jessica Licklider

Please introduce yourselves and the HEP program at Lee College.

JC: I’m Jeannie Colson, the recently retired librarian for the Lee College Huntsville Center, the headquarters for Lee’s higher education in prison program.

JL: I’m Jessica Licklider, the current librarian for the Huntsville Center. Our program has been around since the 1960s, currently serving approximately 1,000 students across seven prisons and one jail.

Tell us what motivated you to develop this resource?

JC: In 2016, as a direct response to an upcoming accreditation visit, Lee College made the laudable decision to transfer me from the library of main campus in Baytown, Texas, to the Lee College Huntsville Center, nearly 100 miles from Baytown. At that time, my job was to provide library resources and services to approximately 1,000 students housed within six Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons.

In trying to develop/define my job, I looked in professional literature and on the internet. My searches got me to the Correctional Education Association, which is primarily focused on secondary education. The searches also brought me to prison librarianship, but that is about libraries within prisons, whether staffed by corrections employees or secondary school district employees. I emailed the library directors in other colleges that I knew had HEP programs. I emailed listservs. But I received no guidance in how to best serve my students.

JL: Much like Jeannie, when I first started this in this field, I distinctly remember searching to find more information on how to provide library services and resources to incarcerated college students. While I did find a few journal articles, I was unable to find any sort of website specifically dedicated to resources and ideas for this kind of work. I largely attribute this to the nature of the job – each DOC, each prison, each program is different. But, after working in this field for almost a year and having met with a number of different librarians around the country, I realized there should be a collaborative website to share ideas, initiatives, handouts, and advice. My goal is to highlight not just the work that Jeannie and I have done, but the work others have done as well.

You focus extensively on accreditation, what role does access to library services play in the accreditation process? Why is it important for HEP programs to have the library as a partner?

JC/JL: We focus on accreditation because it’s important in defining and maintaining standards of education. Because accreditation is of supreme importance to administrators, librarians can (and should) use it as leverage to obtain funding.

The quotes and links on the accreditation page of the site are primarily intended for administrators planning a new HEP program. Naturally, this information should also assist librarians as they make their requests for funding in support of personnel and resources.

Administrators who create HEP programs without budgeting for dedicated librarians and resources are short-changing students and faculty.

But, that’s not what you asked. Every regional accrediting agency requires library resources! They stipulate professional librarians, too, either explicitly or implicitly. Several even mandate instruction in using library resources, either explicitly or implicitly. Administrators who create HEP programs without budgeting for dedicated librarians and resources are short-changing students and faculty.

Texas’s Higher Education Coordinating Board identifies courses that are expected to include research. If our institutions are providing these courses, they are required to include research. It is not enough to give our students one or more articles and tell them to read and write about the articles. That is not college-level research.

Part of the authentic higher education experience is developing information literacy skills. These skills are even more vital for our incarcerated students since many of them have been inside so long, they have no experience with any sort of technology.

Access to resources is always a challenge for incarcerated students, but you have done extensive work making academic databases more accessible to your students. Can you share a bit about your work in this area?

JC: We would love to take all the credit for what our students now enjoy, but none of it was done in a vacuum. The first database we obtained for our students was JSTOR. I learned at a NCHEP in 2016 that JSTOR had developed a completely offline abstract & index (A&I) version of their entire database. They recognized ALL our students were authorized users according to the license, so the flash drive with the database didn’t cost anything to Lee. Our students love JSTOR, but it wasn’t all we wanted and needed.

The folks at Ashland University succeeded where I’d failed over the years, trying to get database providers to create a resource we could use in our setting. They had EBSCO create a proof of concept: EBSCO would provide metadata (A&I again) for a database and Ashland would develop a search tool. Don Reams at Ashland told me about it and, with the encouragement of our college president, I began discussions with EBSCO. In the end, EBSCO provides metadata for two databases, Academic Search Complete and Business Source Complete, both databases Lee currently subscribes to. Additionally, EBSCO developed the search platform using VuFind. What’s particularly exciting about this resource is that we update it monthly. LeeSearch went live in May (first in the world!) and has revolutionized research assignments. Students have the ability to do their own research!

As we were going live with LeeSearch, it occurred to us that there was yet another resource we could provide right away. Virtually all of our students earn business degrees and their capstone project is a business plan. They frequently request sample business plans, and our go-to resource for them is Gale’s Business Plans Handbook, which our campus library owns as ebooks. We double-checked with Gale and were assured we were free to host the actual plans outside of their platform. We created a separate instance of VuFind and started cataloging the individual business plans from Gale’s Business Plans Handbook. This is a work in progress, but it went live in the fall semester. Once again, the students love it. The librarian loves that students can see what business plans are available and can request a print copy of the specific one they want.

With the restoration of Pell funding set to take place in 2023, we expect the number of programs for incarcerated students to grow. Do you think academic libraries are prepared to support a growing number of students?

JC/JL: Absolutely not! Academic libraries are generally understaffed and underfunded. The resources free-world students utilize are generally web-based and require the internet. Students in most HEP programs do not have access to the internet. In order to provide comparable resources, the library and librarians must be creative and adaptable in determining how best to serve their students. Library services, especially information literacy instruction, should be face-to-face whenever possible. Administrators who add HEP programming without providing a budget for personnel and resources are failing their students and their accreditation requirements.

How should the profession be preparing to support HEP programs and incarcerated students?

We should be collaborating! Nobody new to the field should be experiencing the frustration we experienced when trying to find resources and support. That is the purpose of the website, a digital space for the opportunity to collaborate. The website should not be a static, Lee College-specific resource. Rather, as programs in HEP develop, so too should the site.

Ultimately, libraries and librarians serving incarcerated students need a consortium. We need negotiating power, we need a more powerful voice advocating for authentic research opportunities for our students.

Are there any issues or trends in higher education in prison that are especially top of mind? Anything that you are hopeful or concerned about?

JL: One of the things I noticed at the most recent NCHEP was the call for re-entry services and support. With the population we work with, our support does not end once our students graduate. At the Huntsville Center, we have an incredible Director of Re-Entry Services who is doing some truly amazing work with our recently released students. From a librarian perspective, I’d love to develop additional resources to help them post-release, specifically tools to help them navigate the overwhelming amount of information in the digital world. Additionally, I’d love to see an increased collaboration between HEP programs and public libraries.

And of course, one of the issues always on my mind is technology. What can we do to better prepare our students, both currently and formerly incarcerated, for the increasingly technological world?

JC: Added bonus: some accreditors require computer labs and/or technology. Administrators need to search those accreditation documents!

Do you have any new or upcoming projects in this area?

JL: We’ve had an incredible year in 2020, launching two new databases and updating another. While we give our students the chance to get familiarized with these resources, I am exploring ways to grow our eBooks collection and grow our electronic reference collection.