A Model of Library Service to Children of Incarcerated Parents: SLJ Talks to Nick Higgins, Brooklyn Public Library

Nick Higgins brought Telestory, a free video visitation service for families of prisoners at Rikers Island in New York City, to Brooklyn Public Library. Here's how he did it.
More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. Approximately 10 million have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. This number has nearly tripled since 1991, and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s commitment to stiffer sentencing for drug-related crime, it’s not likely to drop anytime soon. What can libraries do to support these children and their families during their period of crisis? One strategy for schools and libraries is to provide video visitation services. Similar to the scheduled video visits available to military families with a parent stationed abroad, video visitation allows families with an incarcerated parent or older child additional contact between in-person visits. Research has shown that family visits reduce the impact of parental incarceration for both parents and children by maintaining family stability and connection. Inmates who receive frequent visits have better behavior records while incarcerated, often leading to earlier parole. And in a moving testament to the power of family connections, recidivism has been shown to drop by an estimated 3.5 percent per visit. When these visits take place in the library, there is an even greater chance for improving outcomes for families. Labor force participation, education, and healthy development are all factors that can be improved by having a strong relationship with the library. SLJ spoke to Brooklyn Public Library’s Director of Outreach, Nick Higgins, who was recently named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker for his role in developing TeleStory, a free video visitation service for families of prisoners at Rikers Island in New York City. Paula Willey: What made you think that the library was the right place to provide video visitation service? Nick Higgins: It has a lot to do with stigma, and what people carry with them because they’re ensnared in the justice system. Family members may have to go in and out of parole offices and reentry agencies, but the public library is a community space. When they come into the public library, it doesn’t have anything to do with the justice system, it’s just about having a conversation with their dad or reading a book with their mom.

Photo credit: Brooklyn Public Library

PW: So these visits are for people who can’t get to the jail? NH: We don’t say that video visitation takes the place of in-person visits—but they are supplemental to in-person visits. It’s true that some families find the security at Rikers scary; at some facilities, there are dogs, and pat-downs, and going through a metal detector. At some facilities, the only in-person visits available are through glass with a telephone or a speaker. Which can be tough; the parent is right there, but the kids can’t touch them, can’t snuggle with them. But you don’t want to give up contact entirely. Video visitation really bridges that gap. PW: How many facilities have TeleStory suites? NH: We’re in all the facilities at Rikers Island. There are 12 in total: 10 detention facilities for men, women, and adolescents awaiting trial or who have been denied or can’t afford bail, and two hospitals. Through the Osborne Association, we now have a relationship with a state prison through referral. PW: Who pays for that equipment in the facility? NH: Actually, most facilities already have video capability for attorney visits and video court, so we just use that. PW: How many libraries do TeleStory? NH: Twelve branches in Brooklyn, four in Queens, three in Manhattan, two in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. And one in Albany. We book between 20 and 30 visits per week in Brooklyn.  PW: How did you pick which branches to put the video equipment in? NH: We chose branches in communities with high incarceration rates. But we also made sure that we maintained geographic diversity. And even in neighborhoods with low incarceration rates, all of our sites are regularly used. PW: Have you also used those suites for other purposes? Did you come up with multiple uses for this equipment in order to justify their cost? NH: Definitely. We’ve used them for homebound seniors by hosting book discussions and art appreciation discussions. We hook a group of people in for a talk, and it’s really nice for them to have that connection. We’re also talking to the library’s immigration services staff, to set up video attorney visits. They haven’t been used for military families yet but that’s in the pipeline too. We’ve also used the video equipment to do some job readiness programs for inmates; our workforce development staff is involved with that. PW: OK, now the bad news. How much does it cost to set up one video visitation suite? NH: It’s a $3,000 to $4,000 one-time expense to buy the hardware, and after that, it’s just the cable bill, which is about $50 per month. PW: Oh! Not as much as I thought! Where did you buy it from? NH: We looked at a number of companies, but went with Cisco for the hardware. They’ve been in the business of connecting prisons for a while, and they’ve been very involved and helpful. Cisco also had recently bought the company that originally supplied Rikers Island with their existing video technology, so their equipment works easily with the existing setup. Of course, the biggest expense is staff. If we are scheduling 24-30 visits per week. There’s a lot of coordinating that has to happen, and that’s time-consuming. We could really use a full-time scheduler. PW: Is there a software cost? Or can you just use Skype or Google Hangouts or something? NH: To communicate with the facility, we have to use a secure provider. So we subscribe to the Sheriff’s Association cloud, which is a link that all sorts of jails and prisons use. That’s about $25-30 per month. But when you use it for other programs, you use WebEx, which is a proprietary web video conferencing solution that comes with the Cisco stuff. It’s nice—you can have up to 200 users at a time. PW: Where do you do video visits in the branch? NH: We set them up in our small meeting rooms or programming rooms. It’s important for people to feel like they’re welcome, that they’re not being hidden away from the rest of the public. The spaces where they visit are semi-private, and often behind glass. You can’t hear what’s going on, but it’s not like they’re closed off in a corner somewhere. PW: Do you offer a programmatic wraparound for those families? NH: Oh, yeah. We roll out the red carpet for them. We make sure everybody has library cards, we give them a tour, we make sure they know about programs that may benefit them. Often they end up using the library to meet needs that have nothing to do with the incarcerated family member. PW: That’s so great. If they’re comfortable with the library that means once the family member gets out, they’re more likely to use the library for job search and re-entry services. NH: We try to make sure that anyone we work with in jail will connect with the library once they get out. PW: What’s your interaction like with the inmates? NH: We circulate carts of books; that’s part of how we get to know people who are in the jails. We get phone numbers of family members from them, then contact the family to offer the video visitation service. And we have a Daddy and Me program. We teach the guys about early literacy, invite them to record themselves reading books to their children, and then the kids come in and we have a big read-together session. PW: So how does the workflow happen? First, you get contact information for families of the inmates. Then, how do you schedule it with the jail? NH: When we call the family, we schedule the visit—it has to be at least 24 hours in advance—and then we fill out a form requesting access for the person who is incarcerated in the video booth at a certain time. There’s also a layer of going through another office in our case, but that’s just how the New York system works. Every system will have its own set of hoops to jump through. The best thing to do is to find out how video attorney visits are scheduled and follow that practice. PW: What restrictions do the facilities place on video visits? Are teenagers allowed to participate? Is there an age limit? Do the facilities insist on monitoring or recording? NH: The same rules that apply to in-person visits apply to video visitation. Visits are protected under privacy law, so the facility isn’t able to monitor the visit. But a lot of this is a negotiation. The facility will insist on a lot of control, and we push back where we can. We push back on requiring ID, for example. There’s no restriction on teenagers meeting with their parents—in fact, a lot of older kids will do video visitation with their parent one-on-one rather than with the family. And we have grandparents and older adults who use the video facilities to visit with a young adult who is behind bars. PW: So, people who may have limited transportation options. NH: Right, or people who have difficulty getting out to Rikers during visiting hours. PW: Lots of people have smartphones or tablets. Why don’t they just do video visitation from home? NH: That’s a good question. There are programs that allow that, private companies like Securus or JPay. You set up an account with them and you pay for visits. PW: Can families or inmates use the suites to prerecord messages or read books? NH: No. Because visits are protected under privacy laws, we never record a visit. PW: That is interesting. I’ve looked at some of these private contractors that offer video visitation, and one of their selling points is that visits can be recorded. What are your thoughts on that? NH: One of the main drivers of all of this is that this technology is proliferating across the country, and often private telecom companies will cut contracts with local governments to prioritize video visitation over in-person visitation and will charge for it. And sometimes the contract will stipulate that in-person visitation is entirely eliminated. In Washington, DC, families actually go into video booths right in the lobby of the jail to do a visit. It’s a cost savings for the institution, but it adds no benefit to the families. If we have the ability to get out in front of these practices and offer it for free, in a welcoming environment, we should. We have a responsibility to create ethical models of visitation that are free and accessible, and complement in-person visitation instead of replacing them. People have a right to visit with their families. Paula Willey is a librarian and blogger at unadulterated.us.  

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