Salt Lake County Jail Library named Best in Category by the National Association of CountiesJul 07, 2023 12:44PM ● By Peri Kinder
The Salt Lake County Jail won Best in Category for Libraries by the National Association of Counties. The jail’s library staff helps incarcerated individuals learn skills and practices to help keep them from returning to jail. (From left) T. Austin, E. Johnson, Jenn McKague, A. Irving, G. Crist, J. Callister, G. Densley. Not pictured: K. Jorgensen (Photo courtesy of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office)
When COVID shut everything down, only two outside partners were allowed into the Salt Lake County Jail: chaplains and librarians. Considered an essential part of the jail community, the Salt Lake County library staff brought education and connection to the incarcerated population.
This year, the National Association of Counties recognized the Library Connections program at the Salt Lake County Jail as Best in Category for Libraries in the Achievement Awards. It was the first time the county has received a Best in Category for Libraries award.
“The Achievement Awards demonstrate excellence in county government and the commitment to serve our residents every day,” said NACo President Denise Winfrey. “This year’s winners represent some of the most innovative and collaborative efforts we have seen in over 50 years of presenting these awards.”
Serving roughly 2,000 daily residents, the jail library provides much-wanted reading materials but also participates in the jail’s Life Skills program, offering classes to help incarcerated individuals as they re-enter society. The courses offer valuable information and resources to keep inmates from returning to jail.
Jenn McKague, senior librarian at the jail, said the Life Skills program is not just library courses, but 240 hours of intensive instruction in communication, mindset, anger management, victim empathy and relationships.
McKague and her staff teach classes about the resources a local library can provide including computer literacy, resume writing and language skills. Librarians also offer art activities, book clubs and yoga and meditation classes to inmates.
“The individuals who sign up for this, maybe they're incentivized for a pizza party, and in jail, that's a big deal, but for those who are able to stay in the program, and graduate, it's huge because you have to make yourself vulnerable. You have to get really honest with yourself,” McKague said. “In Life Skills, they have a graduation, and it’s very impactful and powerful.”
She recently had a prisoner who had been released right before the Life Skills graduation and he actually went back to the jail to graduate. He told McKague, the first thing he did when he was released was to get a library card.
McKague works with Deputy Isaac Miera, who manages the program. Miera made an impression on her with the compassionate way he treats people in the jail system. She has adopted his approach based on kindness and respect and hopes society can change the way they think about incarcerated people.
“Isaac said, ‘This is how I would want my family to be treated,’ and I just love that,” she said. “It’s a really positive interaction. The jail trusted us to stay there during COVID and they consider library services an essential service in the jail, and that’s pretty huge.”
The county library also offers professional development courses for cadets with the county sheriff’s office, to educate cadets about the free resources available at the library. Using the Brainfuse platform, online educational tutoring is available from kindergarten levels up to higher education. There’s also access to LinkedIn Learning, career skills, computer literacy and exam preparation.
As inmates re-enter society, they know they can use county libraries as a way to stay educated, up-to-date on technology and connected to the community. Over the last decade, the jail library has become much more than just lending books. It’s become a portal to change, growth and hope.
“I think it is easy to assume that people in jail are inherently guilty,” McKague said. “But when I walk through those doors, I leave every bias outside. I'm there to provide a good service and that's the same for all of my staff members.”λ