“Remember, when you locked me in a room until I learned how to use that computer?” says the inmate, who wasn’t authorized by the prison to be quoted by name. Miss Shirley laughs, changes the subject, deflecting attention from herself, and then the inmate whispers: “Don’t let her be too modest. She is an amazing teacher. A lot of us have relied on her.”
Murderers, rapists, thieves and drug dealers have been relying on Miss Shirley, as she is always called by library visitors, for more than two decades to get them Jackie Collins novels, Westerns, biographies of Henry Ford, the latest James Patterson page-turner, poetry, Entrepreneur magazine, math textbooks, resume guides and illustrated books about snakes.
But with state budget shortfalls, Miss Shirley is no longer allocated money for new books. Her already tiny slice of the $13.9 million prison education budget was whittled back even further after the department took a $2.1 million hit last year. Staffing is down. Funds for programs letting prisoners read books to their children — also gone.
These days, her stories about library science behind bars often begin with this phrase, “When I had money. . . ”
Miss Shirley has weathered deficits during previous recessions as lawmakers diverted money away from prisoners toward law-abiding citizens — a constituency, she knows, that is prone to ask, “Why give money to murderers to read when people can’t get jobs?”
The pendulum between punishment and rehabilitation behind bars always swings toward punishment during tough fiscal times, prisoner advocates say. But they also argue the swing is shortsighted, pointing to studies showing education programs can reduce recidivism by 29 percent.
“Libraries in prisons changes lives,” says Diana Reese, president of the American Library Association’s division for specialized libraries.
Prisoners acknowledge the difficult decisions lawmakers face.
“Here are these men locked up, promised three meals a day, and we can read at our leisure without paying the rent,” says Wayde Heslop, 38, of Silver Spring, who is serving a life sentence at North Branch Correctional for the murder of a 23-year-old Hyattsville man. (Heslop loved “The Count of Monte Cristo.”) “But some of these men are coming back home. If they come back into society, at least they should come back educated.”
Miss Shirley is not complaining. Rather, she has won plaudits from her prison librarian peers for pushing ahead despite setbacks facing the entire prison reading community. “Her libraries have been devastated in the last few years,” says Diane Walden, Miss Shirley’s counterpart for Colorado prisons. “She doesn’t complain or vent or whine. She is very focused on what she can do. She’s an amazing person and advocate.”