March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Literacy for Incarcerated Teens


An image from Richard Ross’s book “Juvenile in Justice,” which documents the world of incarcerated youth. Photo by Richard Ross.

Literacy for Incarcerated Teens (LIT), founded in 2002 by former-New York City teacher Rebecca Howlett, is a nonprofit library services organization that supports creating, developing, and maintaining the school library collections of New York City’s juvenile justice detention centers—as well as in the residential facilities operated by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) in upstate New York.

LIT’s work, to support school libraries in juvenile detention centers, has ranged from providing curriculum-approved books (for readers ages eight to 17) for libraries at detention centers to youth literacy programming, such as arranging visits and book discussions from celebrated YA authors, including the late Walter Dean Meyers, G. Neri, and Matt de la Peña.

lit-logo2School libraries in NYC’s juvenile detention facilities did not exist before LIT, says Jessica Fenster-Sparber, former-executive director of LIT and the school librarian at Passages Academy, a NYC Department of Education school in Brooklyn serving incarcerated and detained youth where LIT has provided its services. “Jails, detention centers, and prisons provide a unique opportunity to address young people’s literacy gaps,” says Fenster-Sparber. “Excellent school libraries are in dire need [at] these sites.”

Deborah Jiang-Stien

Author Deborah Jiang-Stien hands out copies of her self-published book “Tough Girls Wear Tutus” to incarcerated teenage girls at the Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall. Photo by Amy Cheney

Fenster-Sparber was spurred to work with LIT in 2003. As a school librarian, she volunteered her services at the now-closed Bridges Juvenile Center in the Bronx, where—in spite of the fact that she brought with her a large classroom library of over 1,000 books—she was not permitted to circulate the books as an educator. (Books were considered contraband, and the kids weren’t allowed to bring books back to their rooms at night.)

While detention centers are “mandated by law to have schools,” says Karlan Sick, a retired public librarian and the current chair of LIT’s board of directors, “it’s up to the principal and administrators whether they have a library.”

The organization helped to set up school libraries at seven of Passage’s sites and serves as a sponsor for the Academy’s annual Unconference, a national event that takes place in Brooklyn and brings librarians from all over the United States together to discuss library services for incarcerated youth.

Sick joined the LIT team in 2006. As a former-young adult specialist librarian at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in the Bronx, she, like Fenster-Sparber, had worked with youth detention centers, including the Bridges Juvenile Center and the Horizon Juvenile Center—both in the Bronx—before joining LIT. Her memories of the youths’ eagerness for books stayed with Sick, who continued to visit the centers and give booktalks after the NYPL’s youth detention outreach program was cut at her branch. When she retired from the NYPL in 2005, at the suggestion of Fenster-Sparber—who was LIT’s executive director at the time—Sick formed LIT’s advisory board, helped to fundraise, and reestablished library services at both centers.

Amy Cheney

Incarcerated youth Hannah with books from all of the authors she met at Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, CA. Photo by Amy Cheney.

“[Incarcerated kids] have nothing to do at an age when most kids are playing with their smartphones,” says Sick. “One boy said [that] before we gave him a book, all he had to do was sit and count the hairs on his arms.”

Part of the challenge of providing library services and books to incarcerated youth is that regulations vary according to institutions—for example, most centers in Florida have banned books from youths’ cells because of concern that the teens might turn the books into weapons or escape tools.

Also, there isn’t a high premium on providing library services to correctional facilities, says SLJ contributor Amy Cheney, who works as a librarian at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California.

In a survey of California public library systems that provided services to the incarcerated, only 54 out of the 181 state’s public library systems were identified as providing some degree of library service to the youth incarcerated population—in spite of the fact that the majority of correctional facilities are located in the same service area as public libraries.

“If there was one thing that could really change life for incarcerated kids, “ says Cheney, who is a daily witness to how much time teens spend isolated in their rooms, “it would be mandated library services for free and independent reading.”

For more information about outreach to incarcerated teens, visit:

Sandy Chung is a former UN reporter on health sanitation and currently specializes in communications for architecture. Follow her on Twitter @sndychng.

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.
Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.