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Former inmate advocates for prison library access

Former inmate advocates for prison library access

Behind prison walls, there aren’t many places that feel like a safe haven. But for Scott Smith, who served five years in Nebraska correctional facilities, the library was his salvation. “That’s how you get out of prison for the day, by picking up a book and reading,” said Smith. “It’s vital. It’s absolutely vital.”Five of Nebraska’s ten correctional facilities have formal libraries: Omaha Corrections Center, Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, Nebraska State Penitentiary, Lincoln Corrections Center and the NDCS Diagnostic and Evaluation Center. Smith said the libraries offer a mental escape. “These books, by the time they’re done, the pages are falling out,” said Smith. There’s also the law library, where inmates have the chance to read up on their cases, and even learn to represent themselves. “It changed the whole trajectory of my life,” said Smith, adding the law library is where he decided to start a new chapter after his release in 2018. “I spent countless hours in the law library.”However, these days, not everyone in the corrections system has the chance to spend countless hours studying up.”These kinds of services are shrinking. They’re constantly under the chopping block,” said Jane Skinner, a librarian at Omaha Correctional Center.Skinner is one of just seven librarians in all of Nebraska’s corrections system. “You’re actually looking at one of two people who represent every incarcerated person in Douglas County,” said Skinner. That’s two librarians for about 2400 inmates. When KETV Investigates asked Skinner if that’s enough people power, her answer was decisive: “definitely not.”Nevertheless, Skinner said inmates at OCC are some of the lucky ones. Their library is open five days a week, with dedicated librarians. “We have a focus on rehabilitation,” said Skinner. “I just really, really believe in the work.”Some of the library facilities in Nebraska prisons are only open four days a week.”That has really, really limited access to the library in those locations,” said Nebraska Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes.Because of the staffing crisis in jails and prisons statewide, access to libraries can be restricted when a facility goes on lock down.”Basically, everybody’s probably getting about an hour of access a week, which is just enough time to, to get in, bring a book back,” said Frakes.Frakes told KETV Investigates his team is forced to prioritize the bare necessities when staffing reaches critical levels. That means access to the library is sometimes shelved. “I think that it’s something that we can continue to get better at,” said Frakes. “And it’s not that it won’t be a focus, but it isn’t at this very moment.”Spike Eickholt with the ACLU of Nebraska said staffing shortages cannot be used to justify violating an inmate’s rights, including access to the law library.”Certainly one of those is the right to understand and appreciate any kind of legal proceeding that is now pending against them,” said Eickholt. Frakes insists inmates are granted access to the law library when they have a court date on the books. Smith fears a few hours a week just isn’t enough.”It’s truly impossible for somebody to be able to make a reasonable legal argument in two hours every two days,” said Smith.Furthermore, the library is an outlet, just like the gym or yard. “So as we pull back on them, yes, it’s gonna raise tension, it’s going to, if nothing else, we’re losing that opportunity for people to help themselves change,” said Frakes. Skinner wishes the libraries had bigger budgets.”I need more books. I need more books, all the time,” said Skinner. You can donate books requested by people who are incarcerated here. For Smith, the law library changed everything.”I view myself as a huge work in progress,” said Smith through tears. He’s about to get his degree in bio-systems engineering. And he has plans to start law school next year. He advocates for prison libraries, so those who feel the odds stacked against them can begin a new chapter.”That’s what I want to do if I become an attorney, is I want to go back into prisons and help people,” said Smith.

Behind prison walls, there aren’t many places that feel like a safe haven. But for Scott Smith, who served five years in Nebraska correctional facilities, the library was his salvation.

“That’s how you get out of prison for the day, by picking up a book and reading,” said Smith. “It’s vital. It’s absolutely vital.”

Five of Nebraska’s ten correctional facilities have formal libraries: Omaha Corrections Center, Tecumseh State Correctional Institute, Nebraska State Penitentiary, Lincoln Corrections Center and the NDCS Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

Smith said the libraries offer a mental escape.

“These books, by the time they’re done, the pages are falling out,” said Smith.

There’s also the law library, where inmates have the chance to read up on their cases, and even learn to represent themselves.

“It changed the whole trajectory of my life,” said Smith, adding the law library is where he decided to start a new chapter after his release in 2018. “I spent countless hours in the law library.”

However, these days, not everyone in the corrections system has the chance to spend countless hours studying up.

“These kinds of services are shrinking. They’re constantly under the chopping block,” said Jane Skinner, a librarian at Omaha Correctional Center.

Skinner is one of just seven librarians in all of Nebraska’s corrections system.

“You’re actually looking at one of two people who represent every incarcerated person in Douglas County,” said Skinner.

That’s two librarians for about 2400 inmates. When KETV Investigates asked Skinner if that’s enough people power, her answer was decisive: “definitely not.”

Nevertheless, Skinner said inmates at OCC are some of the lucky ones. Their library is open five days a week, with dedicated librarians.

“We have a focus on rehabilitation,” said Skinner. “I just really, really believe in the work.”

Some of the library facilities in Nebraska prisons are only open four days a week.

“That has really, really limited access to the library in those locations,” said Nebraska Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes.

Because of the staffing crisis in jails and prisons statewide, access to libraries can be restricted when a facility goes on lock down.

“Basically, everybody’s probably getting about an hour of access a week, which is just enough time to, to get in, bring a book back,” said Frakes.

Frakes told KETV Investigates his team is forced to prioritize the bare necessities when staffing reaches critical levels. That means access to the library is sometimes shelved.

“I think that it’s something that we can continue to get better at,” said Frakes. “And it’s not that it won’t be a focus, but it isn’t at this very moment.”

Spike Eickholt with the ACLU of Nebraska said staffing shortages cannot be used to justify violating an inmate’s rights, including access to the law library.

“Certainly one of those is the right to understand and appreciate any kind of legal proceeding that is now pending against them,” said Eickholt.

Frakes insists inmates are granted access to the law library when they have a court date on the books. Smith fears a few hours a week just isn’t enough.

“It’s truly impossible for somebody to be able to make a reasonable legal argument in two hours every two days,” said Smith.

Furthermore, the library is an outlet, just like the gym or yard.

“So as we pull back on them, yes, it’s gonna raise tension, it’s going to, if nothing else, we’re losing that opportunity for people to help themselves change,” said Frakes.

Skinner wishes the libraries had bigger budgets.

“I need more books. I need more books, all the time,” said Skinner. You can donate books requested by people who are incarcerated here.

For Smith, the law library changed everything.

“I view myself as a huge work in progress,” said Smith through tears. He’s about to get his degree in bio-systems engineering. And he has plans to start law school next year. He advocates for prison libraries, so those who feel the odds stacked against them can begin a new chapter.

“That’s what I want to do if I become an attorney, is I want to go back into prisons and help people,” said Smith.

https://www.ketv.com/article/its-vital-former-inmate-advocates-for-access-to-library-in-prison/38337549