Prison librarians push for reclassification
Members seek respect, improved wages and updated job specifications


The state’s prison librarians, who perform some of the most complicated duties of any librarians in California, are organizing to update their nearly 40-year-old job specifications.

“Imagine a library in 1975–card catalogs but no Internet, no DVDs or CDs. Our job specifications haven’t been updated since,” said Robert Oldfield, a librarian and at Valley State Prison since 2000. “Our job specifications haven’t been updated since 1975–while the libraries we work in have changed profoundly since that time. We are pushing for respect and recognition for the complex work that we do.”

Prison librarians from all over the state met in Sacramento in June with the Bargaining Unit 3 negotiating team, and for meetings with senior education officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Local 1000 is pushing the state to modernize the classification and pay prison librarians for the vital work they do.

Role in rehabilitation

“There is a real sense that CDCR officials don’t really understand the work that we do and we need to educate them in order move reclassification forward,” Oldfield said. “Prison libraries have issues that you do not encounter when you run a neighborhood branch library. We provide inmates with a wide range of services that help their education and rehabilitation. If you are an inmate coming up on parole we are your only link to the Internet to find a job, to find a place to live to look for training programs on the outside. We’ve had 30,000 books checked out so far this year but that only scratches the surface of what prison librarians do.”

Each of the state’s 34 prisons has at least one library; most have several libraries. Inmates are usually required to sign up for library time in advance because demand is high. Due to lack of staff, many libraries have had to cut back hours of operation.

“The state is continuously advertising for librarians and senior librarians for correctional facilities,” said Margaret Lirones, who has worked at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran since 2012. “There has been a chronic high vacancy and turnover rate for years. With the renewed emphasis on rehabilitation, there are new programs that cannot be implemented in some libraries because there is no staff. High turnover means that even when a great library program is in place, it must be restarted when new employees are hired, sometimes after many months. Vacancies and turnover hurt the rehabilitation process. Libraries support the education program, support literacy development, provide resources for inmates who are preparing for parole, and provide inmates with legal materials and access to the courts. Libraries that are closed for lack of staff cannot provide any of these services. Addressing the vacancy and turnover rate will make it possible for the state to move forward with library services for rehabilitation.”

Lirones said that when prison librarians also have a teaching credential, they often leave the library for the classroom where the pay is higher. Unit 3 Chair John Kern said the state rejected Local 1000’s proposed changes in librarian pay in bargaining last year, but “we’ve put those salary proposals back on the table.”

“We expect CDCR to address the problem and get the librarian vacancies filled with highly qualified staff. It’s not easy to be a librarian and a correctional employee. A correctional librarian has an amazing skill set and deserves to be compensated accordingly. I’m glad to see our librarians are organizing to win.”