On Tuesday, July 20, Barbara M. and Doris ventured out to the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility for their annual Transition Fair. It was, in many ways, an amazing experience and an event that I hope we can continue to attend in the coming years. This was an opportunity to fulfill one of the missions of our library, to serve a largely unserved population, and a unique opportunity to spread the word about libraries to these offenders and their families who might not know of us and what we provide to the community.
We were welcomed with open arms, along with armed guards and metal detectors, as one would expect in a medium security penitentiary. It turns out that the process of getting into a prison is almost as laborious as getting out. But, once in the hall where the 65 tables of community service providers were being set up, there was a surprising ‘reward’ awaiting the presenters. The Lino Lakes facility has a teaching program where they teach the inmates to bake. And do they ever! The cinnamon rolls they provided us were fantastic! The old timers who had been to this fair before joked that one of the reasons they kept coming back were visions of these rolls.
Once the fair began, the offenders were brought in four groups for approximately an hour to talk to the people at the different tables. Across from us was the FreedomWalk table (a Christian group that helps offenders reacclimatize to the outside world), next to us was the Salvation Army, and on our left was the Father Project. All kinds of providers were there, from faith based organizations to union labor groups to community service organizations. And, as is often the case, we brought home as much information as we disseminated. In fact, you will soon be seeing the link to Twin Cities Community Voice Mail on our employment pages. This service is free to the phoneless in our community and its usefulness is immediately apparent. After all, if you need to give a prospective employer a means to reach you, how would you do that without a phone? This is one answer to that vexing question.
The coordinator of this event, Joe McCoy, was delighted that the library had come to this event. He maintains that this fair is one of the highlights of the year for the offenders in their care. It is an opportunity for these men to speak to outsiders about what they will find when they leave the facility, and is a countermeasure to the negativity that might otherwise overwhelm them as they try to normalize their lives. And his assertions were proven by the men themselves. The offenders were, without a doubt, some of the most polite people I have dealt with in a very long time. I don’t remember a time when I heard that much “please” “thank you” and “excuse me” in one place. They were invariably polite, patient and engaged as they roamed among the providers. They were alternately surprised and pleased to hear about the classes we provide, the materials that they had access to, and services they could access with their library card.
In fact, we knew we had made a difference when one of the offenders dragged his buddy over to our table exclaiming “You gotta hear what the library’s got!”, and another was thrilled to learn of the many free programs available to his children. Joe mentioned later that several people had come to him saying, “Did you know about all that stuff the libraries do now?” Well, if they didn’t before, they do now!