Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Duty of Care

In the prison, all members of staff have what is called a “duty of care” towards the prisoners. It’s sort of a vague expression, but it basically covered the need to treat them humanely – to provide food and water and an hour’s exercise, access to showers and healthcare and information (via the Education department and Library).  It also extended to breaking up fights, identifying those at risk of self-harm and suicide, and isolating troublemakers and bullies.

My responsibility was to provide a library service comparable to the one used by the public, which included not just reading materials, but audio/visual resources, IT access and information on everything from prison rules to career training. UK prisoners are lucky that the government deemed quality library services managed by actual librarians a legal requirement, especially since there is currently some question about whether they have the same obligation (duty of care) to the public.

One of the first things I did after I started working in the prison was try to identify and eliminate any obstacles prisoners had in gaining access to the library. Some were fairly easy to fix – such as rearranging the schedule to make sure that the library times didn’t clash with the gym or their time on the yard. Occasionally it was pointed out to me that in real life, people have to make choices about how to spend their time, which is certainly true. But in real life, most people have access to a public library more than one hour a week. In prison , when almost every minute of unlocked time is designated for a certain purpose, there is really only ever one choice – to participate in the activity or not.  And that was the only choice I wanted them to have to make about the library.

This proved more difficult for prisoners who were not held on the main wings.  Separate library service was already provided to prisoners in segregation (solitary confinement), but prisoners  who were long term patients in the health care centre did not have the chance to attend the main library. Cambridgeshire Library Services had a system in place for visiting the smaller villages and providing for the housebound and disabled – called the Doorstep service.  When I was first hired, I went with the program facilitator to deliver books to a housebound couple in one of the southern villages. The facilitator had a file on each person, with their likes and interests and selected about 12 (large print) books to deliver personally to their homes. I remember being greeted by a couple in their 90’s, who were so excited to see us. The wife made us tea, while the husband showed me a letter they had received from the queen on their 70th anniversary. They were absolutely delighted with the service, especially because there was no way either of them could get to the public library in the next town.

In the prison, because it was my duty to provide a comparable service, I arranged a small mobile library service for the health care centre, including weekly visits by library staff to take requests and reference inquiries. There were never more than a couple guys in there at a time, but often they were injured or unable to leave their bed and they certainly appreciated the visits.

That’s the part I miss about working -- interacting with people who depend on the service, people who appreciated that public libraries provide more than just books, but also a companionable social element that improves their quality of life. 

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on April 4, 2011

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