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Great Stories Club

Working in a Juvenile Justice Facility

The following guidelines have been prepared by GSC advisor Amy Cheney, Program Director for the Juvenile Hall Write to Read program at the Alameda County Library in California. They are intended to support successful partnerships and programs, as well as help librarians conducting outreach in juvenile justice facilities establish credibility and respect with facility administrators, staff and most importantly, the teens.

Tips for working with administration

  • Identify an internal contact: Possible contacts include directors, teachers, librarians, supervisors, and counselors. There may be a “Friends” of the Juvenile Hall group. Think about finding someone who has a role similar to yours in the way they interface with probation staff/youth, such as a teacher. This person can help to lead you through the process of starting the group and working with the teens. If you are unable to identify someone on staff at the institution, speak with one of the librarians already providing services to this population for support/feedback.
  • Listen more than you talk. As Patrick Jones, nationally known young adult librarian and author of several critically acclaimed books for librarians and educators says, “When partnering with correctional facilities, we must understand the need to support the goals of that institution even if they may conflict with our values.” 1 Remember that you are a guest in this institution and be respectful of that.
  • Be aware of the issues that are likely to be prevalent in these institutions. They include:
    • Security: It may take time to get into the institution and set up the program. There can be many processes to go through, such as security clearances. The institution’s main concern is most likely security, and there are a great many things that fall under "security issues" that may surprise you.
    • Power and Control: Within the institution, you will need to be able to know what to stand up for and what to concede. It will be important to access that skill under pressure.
    • Change: The youth can be greatly affected by changes in things like staffing and routine. There can be a lot of change and turnover of youth. Youth may be removed in the middle of your program, in the middle of their most profound moment, or at other critical times. Learn to be more flexible and develop an even better sense of humor. Depending on what is happening that day with the staff and/or youth, your program may or may not happen. Sometimes there will be nothing you can do about it and other times there may be something you can do. You will need to learn to tell the difference between those situations.
  • Remember that your "new" ideas may have been tried or implemented before. Make sure you ask staff as well as administrators about any history. Staff may have been there longer than the administrators and know more about what has gone on in the past and also the actual daily operations.

Tips for working with teens

  • Write up simple expectations and rules for the book discussion. Keep them short and simple (no more than five).  Make sure each expectation is something the teens have control over and that abides by the policies of the institution (e.g., they may not be able to attend each session in some situations, due to a lockdown, court appearances, or other circumstance). Ask the youth for input when developing these expectations.
  • Familiarize yourself with the institution’s reward and penalty system and incorporate it into your program rules.
  • One of the best ways to deal with disruptive youth is to walk towards them and have eye contact with them while you continue with the lesson plan. If a youth is needy (e.g. acting out, asking an overwhelming number of questions), stand beside them so that all eyes of the class are on them. Rather than have their unmet needs run the show, keep your focus and give them the attention they need by standing near them, walking among them, or looking them in the eye.
  • Be sure to establish boundaries and enforce them consistently. Ask the staff what the consequences are for inappropriate behavior. Often the youth get "room time," then a write up. There will be different wording/levels in different institutions. It is likely that you will need to send a youth out of the room, give them room time, and otherwise show them that you understand and will enforce the rules. Often this population will test you until you follow through with the stated consequences. Once you do this--and don't try to reason with them or give them multiple chances, but instead show that you mean business and will do what it takes to have a successful class--they will generally respect you, calm down, and your session will proceed.
  • Some youth may exhibit behavior that you find intimidating or scary. Although it is true that you may be working with youth who have little impulse control or issues with anger or violent behavior, for the most part, if you relate to them as a caring human being, they will respond in kind.
  • If the youth are having a hard time relating to a book, help them build connections with simple activities such as a writing exercise where they write about themselves. Make sure you tell them not to worry about things like spelling and grammar.
  • Remember confidentiality. In general, use first names only when speaking about the youth.
  • Before you give anything to the youth, check with a supportive staff person first. This includes items such as paper, envelopes, food - things you would never think you’d have to check with staff about first. Ask before bringing food, and have that as a reward for after the program.
  • Allow extra time to pass out paper and pencils. In most institutions you will have to count the pencils and make sure you have them all back in your possession before you leave.
  • Staff may interrupt your program by participating in ways that are contrary to your goals, such as lecturing the youth or writing a youth up. Over time you will find a balance between respecting the staff actions and maintaining the integrity of the group session.
  • Many youth in institutions have a history of abuse. Remember that these youth may not have a lot of family or other support and be mindful of that when guiding discussions.
  • Plan for the future. After you are established in the institution (having worked to establish your credibility by your excellent programming and attitude), you will have unlimited choices and options of whom to work with and how your program runs.
1 “Reaching Out to Young Adults in Jail.” Young Adult Library Services. Fall, 2004:14-17

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