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Serving Children Whose Parents Are Incarcerated

According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, approximately 2 million children in the United States have at least one parent who is incarcerated. The number of children whose parents are serving time on probation or parole is even higher. How can we go about helping these children in a public library setting? To find the answer, I conducted brief phone and email interviews with a sampling of social workers, prison librarians, and prison educators from different parts of the country. I quickly discovered that the topic is much too broad for a single post. Therefore, I am going to limit this to personal experiences, basic tips, and a few good resources.

Woodson, Jacqueline, and James Ransome. Visiting Day. New York: Scholastic Press, 2002. Print.
Woodson, Jacqueline, and James Ransome. Visiting Day. New York: Scholastic Press, 2002. Print.

When I worked at a small branch library, I noticed that the Department of Corrections website was very popular. (This was before the days of Facebook.) Passing by the banks of public computers, I would see that the Department of Corrections website was often up on more than one screen at a time. Occasionally patrons would ask for help navigating the site. Why was the DOC site so popular? People used it to see photographs of their loved ones.

Occasionally a child would proudly show me a picture of his or her father. Once a second grader came up to me at the desk and told me she was really excited because her dad was coming home from prison the next day. Unfortunately, not all children have the benefit of living in a community where they are not judged negatively for having a parent who is incarcerated. Many children and families feel a deep sense of shame in having a loved one who is behind bars. They are scared, too. Television programs and movies exaggerate the amount of violence that occurs in prisons. Children worry that their incarcerated parents are going to be hurt or even killed.

In most cases, we do not know when we are helping a child in this particular situation. How do we go about helping these patrons if we are not aware of their circumstances? The answer is to treat each and every patron with kindness and patience. Strive to make the library an oasis of peace and acceptance.

There are some great partnerships between public libraries and prisons. However, it can be challenging to form these relationships. Sometimes there are security issues. Fortunately, most prisons already have excellent literacy programs in place, and many even offer special family visit activities. There are some very successful programs where inmates are recorded reading picture books aloud, and then the tapes are sent to their children.

Here are just a few simple things you can do to serve children and families who have loved ones in prison:

*Promote your library as a place where everyone in the community is welcome.

*Include bibliotherapy books in your collection.

*Provide links to local resources on your library’s website.

*Make outreach a priority and get to know the teachers and social workers in your community.

*Make connections with local probation officers. Many parents who are on probation are only allowed supervised visits with their children and these visits are often held at fast food restaurants. A visit to the public library would be a more enriching alternative. Let people know that they are welcome to drop in and that they do not have to be silent in the library.

*Treat each and every library patron with dignity, patience, and kindness. Remember that many people are intimidated by librarians. You usually do not know when you are helping someone who is dealing with the stress of having a loved one behind bars.

Here are some excellent resources:


Library Partnerships

  • New York Public Library Correctional Services:
  • Hennepin County Library Services to Corrections:


Thank you to Halie Rostberg, Andrea Smith, and Sarah Russell of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Margo Fesperman of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, and Kim Holley of the Connecticut Department of Corrections.

Posted by Rebecca Hickman, Youth Services Librarian, Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library.


Library Services to Special Populations and Their Caregivers Committee Member.



  1. Hannah Pickworth

    AT our peace camp each summer, some of the children attending come through scholarships and one summer Rotary Club gave scholarships designating the children receiving the scholarships come from a school where many parents are in jail. Very thoughtful!! Look for more of these partnerships! H

  2. Pingback: How Juvenile Books Portray the Prison Experience | ALSC Blog

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