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TeleStory: Library Based Video Visitation for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Connect children and families with their incarcerated loved ones through free, easily accessible community-based video visitation services.

Photo of Nicholas Higgins
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Describe your project.

In New York State, 105,000 children have a parent in prison or jail, and 58% of incarcerated men and 73% of women have a child under the age of 18. Children with an incarcerated parent are disproportionately African American (1 in 9) and Hispanic (1 in 28), as compared with white children (1 in 57). In some Brooklyn neighborhoods incarceration rates are among the highest in the city and many of the children and families who are dealing with the collateral consequences of incarceration rely on the public library for support well beyond simply checking out a book.

Brooklyn Public Library proposes to offer free, quality library-based video visitation services in 12 branches for families who wish to read books, sing songs, visit and stay connected with their incarcerated loved ones. Library sites will be selected based on incarceration rates of residents in the local community and consideration of geographic distribution throughout Brooklyn. By providing multiple library access points across the borough BPL will help to ensure that separated families can easily and frequently visit and read together and create a bridge back into the community.

Children ages 0 to 10 can participate in family “video visits” in one of several library rooms that staff fill with stuffed animals, books, crayons and paper to create warm and welcoming spaces—in sharp contrast to those used at Rikers Island. BPL’s video visit rooms offer privacy, but in no way are hidden, to reinforce the message that having a loved one in jail is not something to be ashamed of.

Participants will be identified by BPL staff through existing literacy programs offered to parents at local jails, by librarians conducting weekly mobile book loan services, and by referral through partners. BPL staff will welcome families to the library and provide access to books and other resources. A similar collection of books will be made available for the parent in jail so families will be reading the same books together through a live video link. Staff from the Osborne Association will assist with additional social service supports and referral for parents in need of resources beyond services provided by the Library.

In addition to reconnecting families and supporting reentry, this project has the potential to disrupt predatory practices that have emerged at many jails and prisons across the US. In recent years, for-profit video visitation services in municipal and state correctional facilities have proliferated, making it difficult for families to stay in contact without having to pay exorbitant fees. As a trusted public institution with strict ethical standards, BPL will establish a set of best practices for policymakers across the country.

How does this project advance the library field?

Proposing to “light up” our neighborhood libraries with video visitation services is not about leveraging new technologies, but rather advancing policy for people who are incarcerated and providing a critical service for society’s most vulnerable. With a mission to welcome everyone to participate fully in community and family activities, this inclusive mandate is what separates the public library from all other social service agencies, and this fairly straightforward democratic approach has driven much of the good will we’ve inherited over the years. We therefore have the unique opportunity and obligation to meet the needs of people impacted by the Justice System who are a large, and largely invisible, population, and one that oftentimes lacks access to traditional library services. We also have the opportunity to protect the rights of families impacted by this system. In establishing free, easily accessible community based video visitation services BPL will prevent for profit providers from setting visitation conditions and putting a price on a service that should be free to all families in NYC.

With a Knight Foundation grant, the library proposes to dramatically expand a pilot project it has run since 2014. Two years ago BPL successfully “connected” to all jails on Rikers Island plus all borough based Department of Corrections jails via live video. By expanding from 1 location to 12 neighborhood libraries and reaching beyond NYC into new prisons upstate, BPL can demonstrate how video visitation can be done at scale and thereby establish a new core service for other public libraries. In establishing free, easily accessible community based video visitation services in child-friendly environments, BPL will create a tangible alternative to prevailing practices. At many prisons across the country, for-profit companies set the conditions for this service, if they provide it at all, while other prisons use it to meet their own goals rather than the needs of families with incarcerated members.

BPL is uniquely poised to take a leadership role in video visitation expansion in NYC. In her recent State of the City address Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito urged the City Council to adopt a free city wide video visitation service for families involved in the Justice System to be located in NYC public libraries. Citing BPL’s small pilot as a best practice, the Speaker maintains that “these efforts will not only decrease the burden on families, but should also help reduce recidivism. Brooklyn Public Library already has a promising program that allows detainees to read to their children through videoconferencing.”

Who is the audience and what are their information needs?

BPL has an opportunity to set the conditions for video visitation in New York. We will establish and demonstrate library-based video visitation standards that call for free and robust community access points for families, promotion of concurrent in-person family visitation, family reunification opportunities based in literacy activities, and broad partnership building to support families in social services beyond the Library’s professional capacities. This dramatic expansion of video visitation services will emerge as a national model for public libraries based wholly on family reunification.

The provision of children and youth services and dedication to eliminating the education and literacy gap in low-income communities is central to BPL’s mission. BPL’s free services to incarcerated parents and their families have grown significantly over the years from jail-based library lending services to early literacy classes for parents in jail (including Daddy/Mommy and Me book recording programs). These family programs are an extension of BPL’s First Five Years (FFY) initiative which provides free weekly programs for children ages 0-5 and their caregivers at BPL’s 59 branches. FFY programs model effective, research-based early literacy practices for caregivers to engage in with their children.

As with all BPL programs, the Library strives to use the latest technology and innovations to ensure its programs for individuals who are incarcerated and their families are relevant, engaging and meaningful, and promote a lifelong love of reading. Free videoconferencing services brings the Library to Brooklynites, wherever they are, to promote the importance and joy of shared reading.

When not in use by families impacted by the Justice System, the videoconferencing equipment will support other new services such as BPL staff trainings, author visits, in-house Immigrant Justice Corps legal counsel visits, and providing homebound seniors with vital connections to their community through library programs. The addition of this state-of-the-art technology would allow BPL to broaden its reach, provide more services and deepen its engagement with the community, especially those that are traditionally underserved. As use of videoconferencing technology continues to grow, branch libraries will be prepared to deliver quality instructional and reference services and facilitate meetings and conferences. For example, a growing number of events that feature authors and illustrators are being made available for live videoconferencing to audiences at libraries.

Please list your team members and their qualifications.

Nicholas Higgins is the Director of Outreach Services at Brooklyn Public Library, where he directs a unique suite of services including the Services for Older Adults department, Correctional Services, Immigrant Services, and outreach to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. From 2009 to 2013, he oversaw The New York Public Library’s Correctional Services department, developing several new programs including a New York veterans oral history project, an early literacy and book recording program for incarcerated parents, and "Library School" - a 12 week Literature class offered for men in federal prison. Nick began his career in 2006 at BPL, delivering targeted library services to children with disabilities, war veterans, job seekers, and formerly incarcerated Brooklynites while serving as Librarian and Acting Manager of Volunteer Resources. He received an MLS from the Pratt Institute and a BA in British Literature from Hunter College.

Nick Franklin, Coordinator of Transitional Services at BPL, has 17 years of experience in connecting young people to books and library resources through his work as a Young Adult librarian and a library manager, which included visits to schools, youth facilities, jails and prisons to discuss and promote literature. Nick organizes pushcart lending-libraries, early literacy workshops for parents, and book clubs for young adults at Rikers Island and Brooklyn House of Detention. Nick also coordinates video conferencing visits to jails from Brooklyn Public Library locations allowing families added visit time with their loved ones in a setting that is at once more welcoming and enriching for children. Nick holds a BA in English Literature from the University of New Mexico, and a Master of Library Science from the Pratt Institute.

Deputy Commissioner Winette Saunders leads the adolescent and young adult strategic plans for the New York City Department of Correction. For the past 23 years, Deputy Commissioner Saunders had worked in higher education and social services within city government and non-profit. Ms. Saunders provided policy recommendations to ten City Commissioners. She was an Assistant Director of Hospitals at Rikers Island where she managed a component of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s discharge planning program for the forensic mentally ill population.

Katharine Nephew is the Director of programs for Children, Youth and Families at The Osborne Association where she is responsible for a continuum of services for both parents and children. She has worked with NYC children and families, both impacted and served by the child welfare system since 1999. In her roles as a social worker, forensic interviewer and mental health consultant to ACS she has been inspired by children’s resiliency in the face of multiple trauma’s and is proud to be part of an organization that’s seeks to keep families connected during a parental incarceration.

Organization name and location (City, State).

Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn, NY

What are the obstacles to implementing your idea, and how will you address them?

Gaining access to, and reaching a population that is greatly impacted by geographic separation is the primary obstacle in fully implementing our idea. BPL has extensive access to local jail facilities that will make this program relevant for countless families and prisoners in the NYC area, but we have far less access to folks from NYC who are housed in upstate prisons. Over half of the approximately 53,000 people held at the 54 New York state prisons come from NYC. Of that half, many come from just a handful of Brooklyn neighborhoods including East New York, Brownsville, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. We aim to open up video visitation in at least one remote prison location, connecting NYC families who are separated by great distance. For a child in Brooklyn who has never seen her dad in person because he's in a prison near Canada, through TeleStory she can go to her library to sing songs and read with him through video as often as she likes.

Our lead partner is the Osborne Association, which operates in several sites across New York State including the Albion and Clinton-Annex Correctional facilities and will soon add the Auburn Correctional Facility to its roster. Through this partnership BPL will be able to engage families who have loved ones in these facilities and will position BPL as a significant and trusted provider of family unification services within the NY Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) prisons, opening the door for greater partnership and collaboration. Though access to these DOCCS facilities would demonstrate a considerable level of growth for our library program, there remains the hardship faced by families who have loved ones incarcerated in far flung regions of the state including prisons located in remote northern towns, a full day’s drive from NYC (see “Hub Map” attachment, looking specifically at the Watertown and Clinton Hubs). By partnering with the Osborne Association we have already set the stage for a unified push into these remote facilities. Osborne, having had success in establishing videoconferencing services in DOCCS facilities, will provide negotiating leverage in the expansion proposal.

BPL also has had several conversations with the Director of Family and Volunteer Services at DOCCS about aligning an upstate televisit expansion project with current initiatives through DOCCS. The discussions have been positive and both parties agree that the service would be most relevant for family members in NYC who have loved ones incarcerated in prisons far from the city. Implementation of the plan would depend upon providing staff support at these facilities to assist with inmate participation in the program. BPL will subcontract with a public library near the chosen facility to provide part time outreach support for this project. BPL will receive assistance in coordinating this effort from the NY State Library Outreach Coordinator Network based at the State Library in Albany.

How will you spread the word about your project? Who are you trying to reach?

In December 2013, the Pew Research Center released "How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities," a study highlighting the changes in how people use and value libraries. Of note is that while the vast majority of Americans (94%) believe libraries improve the quality of life in communities, only 48% of people visited a library, down from 53% the previous year. Thirty percent of respondents knew little or nothing about library services and programs. Changes in how people access information is causing libraries to re-envision their service models and seek opportunities to engage the community in new ways. TeleStory is a demonstration of how libraries are re-envisioning its service model and drawing in new users, while staying true to core library values of access, inclusion, and innovation.

BPL will spread the word about the project to members of our communities who will benefit directly from the TeleStory program, and also to those who will be attracted to the merits of the program and be impelled to advocate for TeleStory in their own established networks at work, places of worship, schools, and households. BPL will formally promote the TeleStory program through marketing collateral and through in-person communication to our program partners at the NYC DOC, NY DOCCS, community based organization networks such as the NY Re-Entry Education Network, individual partners affiliated with both the library and the Osborne Association, and local and state elected officials through our Government Relations office at the Library. BPL staff who attend monthly Community Board meetings across the borough will promote the program broadly in these neighborhood settings.

BPL plans on promoting TeleStory to all of our jail based library patrons. Last year the Library traded books with 15,090 individuals incarcerated in NYC DOC facilities through our weekly mobile library programs. NYC DOC is partnering with us on our Knight News Challenge proposal and has offered to promote TeleStory to groups in weekly inmate council meetings that take place across all city jails, and to include the program in internal marketing aimed at staff and inmate populations.

To reach the significant numbers of Spanish speaking individuals and families impacted by the justice system we plan to hire a full time Program Coordinator with dual language capacity in English and Spanish. TeleStory will also be promoted on BPL’s social media channels, e-newsletters and web-based advertising.

We will also target a critical secondary audience of national library leadership, municipal/state policy makers, and corrections officials. Through active conference participation, professional writing, and the development and facilitation of professional development modules for colleagues across industries, BPL and Osborne will leverage our free and inclusive model of video visitation as a national best practice in this booming, and largely profit driven service.

How much do you think your project will cost, and what are the major expenses?

Total approximate cost for TeleStory = $255,000.

To implement TeleStory fully we will hire a full time Program Coordinator to oversee 12 Brooklyn Public Library based televisit rooms, manage jail based promotion and recruitment efforts, lead presentations at local and national conferences, liaise with prison and community partners, deliver professional development workshops across industries (libraries, corrections, outside municipal and state agencies, etc.), and work with Osborne on continuous training for library branch staff. The Coordinator will work with BPL staff on creating new content and evaluations for existing jail based early literacy and lending library programs.
 
We will purchase videoconferencing equipment (hardware + cloud subscription for 3 years) for BPL libraries, plus one video unit to be established with our upstate library partner.

One part-time Program Assistant will be hired by the Osborne Association who will work with families across the 12 BPL video visitation sites, assist with development and facilitation of supportive televisit training for librarians, promotion, and recruitment of participants.

One part-time Program Assistant will be hired by an upstate library identified by the NY State Library Outreach Coordinator Network to assist with a pilot of TeleStory activities in a NY State Prison located in a northern, or far western DOCCS hub.

Matching core collections of children's books will be purchased for all 12 BPL sites and 1 upstate library, all 12 NYC DOC jails, and 1 upstate prison. A core collection has already been developed in consultation with BPL children's librarians and is now in use in our current televisit site at the Central library in Brooklyn.

In partnership with Osborne we will produce a video training series on early literacy and supportive televisiting best practices to be shared broadly on websites, at local and national professional conferences, and in professional development workshops with local, state, and national partners.

Other OTPS needs including office supplies, decorative spruce ups and activity supplies for video rooms, laptops for staff, etc. will be taken from existing operational budget in BPL's Outreach Services Office.

FT Program Coordinator: 87,000 (salary + fringe)
Software Licenses + Hardware SX-10 Video Room Systems (quote from CISCO): 78,000
Core Children’s Book Collections at all Sites (1,200 per collection): 30,000
PT Program Assistant (Osborne): 25,000
PT Program Assistant (Upstate Public Library): 25,000
Professional Development Video Series (Osborne): 10,000

TOTAL
255,000
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Attachments (4)

PEW Libraries in communities.pdf

Report on library usage and public perception. Identifies a need for libraries to re-envision their role in the community.

Hub Map.pdf

Map of the 54 prisons in New York State under the NY Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Over half of the nearly 53,000 people incarcerated in these prisons come from NYC. Many of these New Yorkers are housed in prisons hundreds of miles away from the city, creating an often insurmountable hardship for families wishing to visit face-to-face.

osbornestudy.pdf

Report authored by staff at the Osborne Association that points to best practices for supportive videoconferencing services for families.

ScreeningOutFamilyTime_January2015.pdf

Report that covers nationwide applications of video visitation services, primarily in for profit environments.

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