We are helping them forge a better path

This article, by Stephanie Mitchell, was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star, opens a new window on September 20, 2021.

I would love to give you a tour of the library where I work.  There are bookshelves and displays that look more like a bookstore than a library.  On every wall, there is artwork created by our customers.  Just outside the library’s east wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, you can’t miss the abundant community garden.  Most remarkable are the customers themselves, who are exclusively tweens and teens.  Stay a while and you’ll notice that not one of them is hunkered over a phone or screen of any kind. 

Unfortunately, I cannot let you inside.

I am the Librarian-in-Residence at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center’s Juvenile Detention Center.  Our library program makes available materials and programs that meet the educational, recreational, informational, and cultural needs of detained youth.

A secure detention facility isn’t for everyone.  The physical environment can be intimidating and security considerations must become second nature.  If you can adapt to these realities, however, you will find teens and tweens who are eager to engage with the world around them even as they struggle to do so constructively and within the law.  Their troubles are often visible yet they are generous with smiles and laughter.  They rarely fail to thank me at the end of a library visit or conversation. 

I have never met a group of kids who reads more.  It is a joy to witness the transformation of a teenager who has never read for pleasure into an avid reader who can’t get all the books in a series fast enough; or who wants to read everything they can about computer programming and physics.  They are eager to talk about what they’ve read.  When they come to the library in groups or I pay a visit to their living unit, an impromptu discussion often breaks out that sounds an awful lot like a book club.  These are the most valuable moments in my day.  Without their feedback, I can’t do my job effectively.

I am often asked what books are most popular with JDC youth.  The perennial favorite is the memoir A Piece of Cake, opens a new window by Cupcake Brown.  Favorite authors include Allison Van Diepen, opens a new window, Jason Reynolds, opens a new window, Ellen Hopkins, opens a new window, Rick Riordan, opens a new window, and Cassandra Clare, opens a new window.  A unique reading culture has developed based on favorites passed down from youth to youth.  I honor this and at the same time challenge kids to invite new books into the fold.  Like anyone, they are drawn to books that are familiar and reflect their lived experience.  These stories validate the realities and challenges in their lives, some of which contributed to their being here.  Equally vital is reading that introduces the possibility of life beyond their immediate circumstances.  Books introduce us all to people, places and ideas that enter our imaginations and enable us to see how our lives could be different.

Keeping a great collection of books is just the beginning.  I want these youth to re-enter the community knowing that the public library is a lifelong partner.  Everyone receives a brand new book upon release and I issue new library cards so their journey of learning and imagination can continue.  In non-pandemic times, we host artists-in-residence to provide hands-on programs in fine art, yoga, music, theater, writing, and career exploration to name just a few. 

The library program at JDC was established by PCPL librarian Jimmie Bevill in 2001, making this our twentieth anniversary year. Much has changed, including a lower average number of detained youth thanks to an increased focus on detention alternatives.  What hasn’t changed is that the 25-35 youth here are just that:  Youth.  Teenagers.  Kids.  What brought them here does not erase the hope, promise and ambition that lives in every young person.  PCPL is proud to partner with the JDC to nurture these qualities and equip youth to forge a better path for themselves.

Stephanie Mitchell has worked for the Library since 2009. In addition to corrections libraries, she is experienced in archives and special collections. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and camping throughout The Grand Canyon State with her trusty Arizona Atlas and Gazetteer.