A huge thank you to Andreas, Prospective Prison Librarian who brought up some very good questions in a previous comment. I will endeavor to answer them to the best of my ability without revealing any things that would be frowned upon by the Administration, should anyone really know who it is writing this blog. I guess I should also say the standard disclaimer of "This blog represents my own views and opinions and does not represent or speak for the Establishment for which I work." There, now on to the fun stuff.
Question: How did you acquire your position?
Answer: I came to prison completely by accident. My MLIS concentration was Archives/Records Management, which, while intensely interesting, does not have very many job openings because once someone gets a job as an archivist, they die in that position. I completely get that, if I were to ever get a non-grant funded archivist position, I would die there too. Anyway, after graduation I was offered a grant-position in a state archives in the Midwest. Unfortunately, the grant was almost over and the project was almost done, but the five months I spent working there were some of the best months in my life. I had THE BEST boss and the work was fascinating. Coincidentally, the grant ended right as the economy was crashing and even though my boss is one of the best-connected archivists this side of the Mississippi, I was unable to secure a position in the state so my HB and I decided to move back to our home state after I spent 4 months collecting unemployment and unsuccessfully searching for positions in my field. When we got back home, I was immediately re-hired at my old bartending gig and then a couple months after that I got a sub position at a local public library. When we moved home (November) I applied for the prison library job just so I could feel like I was trying and didn't hear anything back until February when they called me for an interview. After the interview, I was offered the position and finally started basic training in May. So if you don't hear back from prison right away, or even for a few months, that doesn't mean you were not selected, it just means that bureaucracy is VEERRRRYYYYY SLLLLLOOOOWWWWW.
Question: What are the educational requirements for working in a prison library?
Answer: This varies widely depending upon the system to which you are applying. Having only worked in one prison system and never having applied anywhere else, I can only speak to our hiring requirements. In my position of "Librarian II" the successful applicant usually has a MLIS, MLS, MSLS, or any other variation of a master's degree in libraries. This is in addition to two years of "professional level" experience. For the entry-level library tech position, the only requirement is a GED or High School Diploma and two years of general library experience. There is also an elevated tech position that has a little more supervisory responsibilities and requires four years of library experience. Now, I am lucky to be in the geographic location I am, because I have two techs who have master's degrees. I like to look at my library as being in a leadership position for the other libraries because we have so much book learning. From what I have seen with regard to other prisons though, is that master's degrees are not as much required, possibly because they don't want to have to pay the library staff as much. While I don't make as much as a branch manager at a public library, now that I am the boss I do make enough money to pay my bills each month and have a little bit left over for fun, which is definitely a blessing.
Question: What is the competition like for prison library positions?
Answer: Not being in on the decision for which applicants get an interview (I just get the list from HR) I am unsure of the exact answer to this question. I think that the last time we had a position open, we had 24 applicants and 12 actually met the qualifications to be considered for an interview. That's pretty good though, considering the extremely low salary that is offered for our tech positions, especially when most of the applicants have master's degrees. But if you want to learn EVERY aspect of librarianship (and have a second income either from a partner or another job) it is a great environment to cut your librarian teeth. Now, I am also in a major metropolitan area, so I am sure that I get WAY more applications than some of our more far-flung facilities. That might be something to consider--if you are really interested in being a prison librarian and don't mind moving to a small town, the competition for the open positions is much less. P.S. Yes, the "Why on earth would you want to work in PRISON???" is a response that people give no matter your geographic location haha.
Question: What is the difference between state and federal prison libraries?
Answer: I don't believe I have ever met a federal prison librarian, and my only experience with knowing they have libraries is that one time a library patron gave me a library request from the Supermax. Aside from being impressed that he carried it all that way, it did him no good because we have our own forms for library services. (If any federal prison librarians are reading this blog, or any potential prison librarians are successful in getting a federal prison job, I would love to hear about your experiences there.) Now I am familiar with the differences between a state facility (where I work) and a private prison facility where I met someone who worked there at a conference not too long ago. In my state, the state libraries are fairly well-supported and regulated. We receive a lot of support from the State Library and while our budget is not amazing, we have enough money to buy new books three or four times a year and we can usually get a good amount of books. We also have a phenomenal acquisitions librarian at the State Library who keeps us in donations from all the public libraries, so I think we are doing pretty ok. There is always room for more money in libraries, but we are not destitute by any means. I believe the private facilities are mainly supported by donations, and unfortunately this is also the case at some state facilities as well, depending on the state. Also, private prison salaries are on the whole, much lower because the profit is the bottom line in a private prison. I do know that in the grand scheme of things, our prison library is fairly unique in the set-up we have and most prison libraries you apply to will have their own rules and quirks. From what I hear on the Listerv, lots of prison libraries face many censorship challenges on a daily basis, so you have to be a really good advocate for Intellectual Freedom.
My favorite story to tell about what I learned about prison libraries in library school is: "The only time I ever heard anything about prison libraries is when one fellow student said 'If you go visit prison, don't wear orange pants!' and I thought 'Who owns orange pants anyway?'"
One good resource for All Things Prison Libraries is Prison-L. I highly recommend that all potential prison librarians subscribe to it, because there are many interesting posts, and it is also a good link to current prison librarians if you have questions about anything in the field. Many of the Big Wigs in the field post to it (including yours truly) and I have found it to be an excellent tool for connecting with like-minded librarians.
Thank you so much Andreas, for your kind words and thoughtful post that brought up some excellent questions for anyone contemplating diving into this oftentimes crazy world of prison libraries. If you have any more questions, or would like any more tips on cover letters, interviews, etc. please let me know. Good luck on your prison library job search, and remember, whatever is meant to happen will, and don't be surprised if it takes many moons haha.
Until next time!