Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Jailhouse Librarian’s Journey

With the release of her debut memoir, Marybeth Zeman speaks to Uncommon Journalism about her quest to change the nation’s juvenile justice system “one book at a time”

By: James Swift

For more than 20 years, Marybeth Zeman taught East Meadow Public School System students in New York, primarily serving as a high school English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. Over the years, she had amassed quite the resume. As a Rotary International group study exchange member, she spent time in Argentina and had studied at Dublin’s Irish Writer’s Centre. And in 2009, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) presented her with a scholarship via the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, which allowed her to pursue an MS in Library Science at St. John’s University.

The decades, however, had taken its toll on the Brooklyn native. Having lost her first husband to cancer, she would soon witness her second husband battle his own serious illness. With the school district consolidating the ESL program, Zeman was then asked to switch to teaching middle schoolers -- a prospect she was less than optimistic about.

“As much as I love teaching,” Zeman told Uncommon Journalism, “I know individuals who teach middle school level, and you have to love teaching middle school.”

In 2010, Zeman found her career at a crossroad. A position for a transitional counselor had opened up at the Nassau County Correctional Center (NCCC), which was home to the East Meadow Public School System’s incarcerated youth program. “The way the role was defined to me was that I was to assist students making the transition from jail back into the community, or back into schools or vocational programs,” Zeman said. Compared to instructing middle school students until she retired, Zeman considered the opportunity “a great alternative.”

During the interview for the position, Zeman said the administrator was “shocked” to learn that she had personal experience with the juvenile justice system. After being widowed in her 40s, she said her sons began displaying behavioral problems. “I wouldn’t say they were incarcerated,” she said, “but I had to access the family court system and deal with acting out behavior during that period of time.”

For a week, Zeman shadowed the outgoing transitional counselor at the facility. At first, Zeman said she was nervous about the new position, pinpointing “a huge void of knowledge” regarding available programming as a particular worry. One thing she wasn’t apprehensive about, however, was her own safety. “I wasn’t fearful about going into jail,” Zeman said.

While some teachers and librarians may feel concerned entering NCCC, she said most of them are genuinely moved by what they encounter inside the jailhouse walls. “They’re touched by the authenticity of the students,” Zeman said. “I guess whatever their perceptions are, they’re going to walk in and find it isn’t there. What they find is teenage students, that respond much in the same way as teenage students in high school.”

“Defeated by the Educational System”

While NCCC is “supposed” to be a short-term juvenile facility, Zeman said some youths could be detained there for up to two years. The facility, she added, housed both low-level misdemeanants and high-risk felony offenders, many of whom are bound for Federal prisons. “I have students that have stolen an iPhone that are incarcerated with students who have committed murder,” Zeman said.

Zeman described the NCCC campus. “One of the buildings is very, very old,” she said. “They don’t even have electric doors -- they still have big rings of keys, and you have to put that into the door.” The outmoded-appearing building is often used for television shoots. Trailers and production equipment for TV programs like “The Good Wife,” Zeman said, are typical sights around the jailhouse grounds.

One large classroom is housed in the building, she said, as are several of the juvenile detainees. Most of the students, however, live in a newer wing, which also houses the school itself. “They would walk from their cell area, down a hallway, and into the school part, which is very small,” Zeman said. “We’re around the corner from the prison chapel.” At a separate building, a small population of female juvenile detainees are housed. “We might have 125 to 150 boys at any one time,” she said, “but a large population on the girls' side would be seven, eight, maybe 10 girls.”

Zeman’s students range in age from 16-to-21. The population, she estimated, could be as high as 90 percent minority youths.

“There are racial barriers to overcome when you’re dealing with the students,” Zeman said. “They can see through any facades that people have. It’s almost like a basic instinct.”

As such, Zeman believes honesty is an absolute necessity for connecting with the populations. “I think they sense someone who's genuine and real, and if you can come across exactly as that,” Zeman said, “I think the differences between students and myself are totally eradicated, and you’re on a level playing field.”

Most of the students, she said, display behavioral issues and have performed poorly in public school. She recalled some students who, as late as the eleventh grade, had accumulated a sum of high school credits that could be counted on one hand.

However, Zeman notes some similarities between her incarcerated students and the students she taught as a public school ESL teacher. “They put forth a great deal of effort, more so than what I think I would see in a normal high school student,” she said. “They’ve had real obstacles in their lives, and they’ve had to push past them.”

While both types of students tend to be marginalized, she does observe a difference between the two. The incarcerated students, Zeman said, almost appear “beaten” by their public school experiences.

“Very few of them had success coming out of the traditional school system,” she said. “They were almost defeated by the educational system.”

The Nassau County Correctional Center is home to the East Meadow Public School System's incarcerated youth program. Zeman has served as a transitional counselor at the facility for half a decade. 

While she has observed some reluctance --or at the very least, “a less than welcoming attitude” -- on the part of school districts to accept formerly detained students, she said the incarcerated youths she works with actually seem to have a strong desire to re-enter the public school system.

“When they become incarcerated, they become highly motivated to come to school everyday,” Zeman said. At that point, public school, she said, becomes a “relief” compared to the “monotony and the boredom” of being locked up.

Over the last half decade, Zeman said she’s seen many improvements. For one, she believes incarcerated youth education requirements in New York have become more defined, making it much easier to communicate with parents and keep track of test scores. For students slotted for GEDs, she said the programs display a stronger sense of structure; furthermore she said youths feel as if they can genuinely communicate with the facility's psych directors and counselors. Overall, she said there is much more accountability for students and parents then there was when she first began working at NCCC.

The NCCC juvenile offender program, she said, provides “a very small window of opportunity” to deter young people from embarking upon lifelong cycles of incarceration. However, transitional programming and support systems for incarcerated youth, she said, remain scarce.

“As I worked in the program, the number of programs that I can access on the outside has diminished significantly,” Zeman said. “One by one, they were cut, usually by a lack of funding from somewhere. All of a sudden, there two that were in Hempstead, and then there were none.”

The Library Cart

After receiving her Master’s degree in Library Science, Zeman wondered if she would ever use it. The economic downturn had whittled local public library jobs to virtually nothing, and her highest hopes were to transition to an ESL program in a “museum-like setting.”

However, upon arriving at NCCC, she observed “the necessity” of reading material for detained youths. “There were books available, but there were not a variety of books,” Zeman said. “In terms of librarian-speak, there wasn’t a large, diversified collection.”

The school stock, she said, was filled with unvaried -- and to most students, boring -- literature. “Essentially, teachers were just handing them out, and kids didn’t have any ownership of those books,” she said. “They weren’t invested in them, they didn’t have any say in their selection.”

It wasn’t long before Zeman put her IMLS training in motion. Her remedy to the school’s unimpressive bibliographical collection? The introduction of a wheeled, three-foot-tall library cart.

Students immediately took a shining to the rolling library, with many youths, Zeman said, enjoying the accountability associated with “checking books out” from the mobile unit. The number of students for whom this was a new concept, she said, amazed her. “Kids that are born in the United States, I just assume that they would have some sort of experience, if not as a teenager, as a preschooler or kindergartner,” she said. “These kids did not have library cards. They’ve never visited a public library.”

At first, Zeman viewed the library cart as merely a means of providing leisure reading opportunities to students. However, as it grew, she said she’s begun to realize the “power” of the program. “All the things that the American Library Association would say why young adults and teens need public libraries,” Zeman said, “the exact same things occur with our population.”

Beyond promoting literacy, Zeman said the library cart project gives youths an opportunity to engage with adults and influence the type of reading material they have access to. When presented with the “right kind of books,” she said her students transformed into voracious readers.

“They are so bored in jail that reading becomes their only entertainment,” she said. “We’re really promoting a lifelong learning experience by having them enjoy reading, which is only going to be transferable to life skills.” Furthermore, the program also helps students better prepare for GED testing -- something Zeman said she didn’t necessarily envision as a “benefit” when the library cart program began.

Since starting the library program, Zeman has spoken to several public library associations about their own “outreach potential.” For young adults in the community, Zeman believes public libraries can create transformative opportunities that parallel those experienced by the jailed youth population she has worked with.

By collaborating with the public library system, Zeman said she has seen a possible solution to the lack of traditional transitional services in Nassau County. Libraries, she said, can be public hubs for information services, GED classes, ESL programs and job training services -- “all of the things than an established transitional service program used to offer,” Zeman said, “before they were all killed by a lack of funding.”

Zeman's experiences working with youth at NCCC inspired her to pen
a memoir, which was released earlier this year. 
From Librarian to Author

Earlier this year, Vinegar Hills Press published “Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time.” The book, which accounts Zeman’s experiences working with youths housed at NCCC, has received rave reviews from individuals like Gerald Nichols, director of the Palmer Institute for Library Organization and Management at Long Island University and Sheila Rule, founder of the Think Outside the Cell Foundation. CNN commentator Michaela Angela Davis called Zeman’s work a “little treasure of a book,” praising it for telling “big stories of young men trapped, seeking and sometimes finding a way out” through the power of reading.

“I was absolutely astonished by the connections that were created with this library cart,” Zeman said. “It wasn’t just about lending library books, it was about developing a relationship, allowing me to get to know these boys.”

For two years, Zeman said “heavy duty emotions” drove her to spend lunch breaks writing about her students. “These kids have tragic stories, and sometimes tragic endings,” she said. “I needed to process that, as a counselor.”

Zeman’s second husband soon fell ill, and was placed in a nursing home. She began sending him her private journal entries; so moved by the boys’ stories, he urged his wife to share her writings with others. “He was my biggest motivator and encourager to do this,” Zeman said. “He told me to try not to connect the stories -- just keep journaling.”

He told her she would know when it was time to stop writing. “He was absolutely right,” Zeman said. “It got to a certain point where I had so many vignettes, I did not know when I was tripping over myself.”

Not all of the stories within the book are dispiriting, Zeman said. Indeed, many are poignant, moving and humorous. She refers to a student given the pseudonym “David,” a “pesky, irritating kid” who eventually grew on her and the facility’s teachers.

“It turned out I wrote about him three times, because each of his stories I wrote about were so unique,” she said.

His life could be summarized as one of abandonment, Zeman said, yet he still showed deep concern for his mother. She recalled “David” dreaming of showing off his GED certificate, and making his mother happy by getting “a decent job” after doing his time at NCCC. His attempt to convert to Rastafarianism, she said, was one of the funniest passages in the entire book. “David had one of the worst set of dreads I have ever seen,” she remembered. “He either was going bald, or he didn’t know how to twist his hair.”

Putting the final touches on the book, Zeman realized that she needed to place stats and figures about current juvenile incarceration trends in the title as well. “I wanted to share these boys' stories,” she said, “but I also wanted to inform people about what the current state the juvenile criminal justice system was.”

“Freedom Tickets”

Regarding library services as a whole, Zeman believes they can serve as crucial access points for incarcerated individuals. Furthermore, she believe libraries can also be access points for the families of incarcerated youth, primarily by providing information services and linking up mothers and fathers with support groups.

She references Daniel Marcou, a Hennepin County, Minn. correctional librarian, who once described library cards as “freedom tickets.”

“A public library is there to serve the community, and the incarcerated are just as much a part of the community as anyone else," she said. "And in fact, the more stable the incarcerated individuals become, the more stable the community becomes when they get mainstreamed back out.”

When Zeman began working at NCCC, she said she was totally “blank and naive” about the juvenile justice system. Today, she considers that system to be a “broken one,” with education serving as a key component to mending it.

“In many cases, we know what were doing, we know what works,” she said. “There are many programs doing the right thing, but we’re just not doing enough of the right thing.”

A lack of reform and vision, coupled with general public resistance, Zeman said, are all factors that keep the nation’s juvenile justice system from improving. However, she believes the media is bringing heightened attention to the numerous problems centered around youth incarceration.

“Two years ago, when I started to write this book, there was relatively little said about the current state of incarceration,” she said. “In terms of The New York Times writing an editorial, or NPR doing a program, they were far and few in-between.”

Now, however, a week doesn’t go by when she doesn’t read an article or op-ed in the mainstream press about juvenile justice reform or the “school-to-prison pipeline.” That said, she believes public support for reform continues to lag far behind.

With her book, Zeman said she tried to steer clear of editorializing. Rather, she wanted the boys’ stories to speak to the state of contemporary juvenile justice.

“I really do think if we provide facts and statistics about the system, and we open people’s eyes to how it operates,” she concluded, “that they will formulate their own opinions, that it’s very clear that the system isn’t working.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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