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Carnegie Library teams with Allegheny County Jail inmates for unique programs

| Saturday, May 31, 2014, 8:29 p.m.
During the Literacy Unlocked program, Daquan Starr plays catch with his son, Isiah Starr,2, of the Hill District,  at the Allegheny County Jail, Saturday, April 19, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
During the Literacy Unlocked program, Daquan Starr plays catch with his son, Isiah Starr,2, of the Hill District, at the Allegheny County Jail, Saturday, April 19, 2014.

His red jumpsuit embroidered with “Contact Visit” in white letters, inmate Da'Quan Frison-Starr beamed with pent-up excitement before eagerly kissing his son Issiah on a play rug in the Allegheny County Jail.

Issiah, 2, reluctantly allowed the affection but would not kiss back.

Then, when guards announced it was time for inmates to file back in groups of two to a sealed-off room for strip-searching, Frison-Starr looked straight ahead as he marched back. He brushed away tears.

The once-indifferent Issiah began sobbing. A therapist rushed with a tissue to console him.

All the while, librarian Dan Hensley of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh strummed a ukulele and sang “The Shaker Song” with children of other inmates as the youngsters rattled plastic eggs to the tune. Their joyful singing contrasted with the somber scene involving Issiah.

It's Hensley's goal to distract the youths from a truth Issiah seems to realize: Their fathers may not see them again for another month, if that soon.

For the past year, the Carnegie Library and the jail have brought the library to 1,000 inmates through an unusual partnership called Literacy Unlocked. About 7,000 children in Allegheny County have one or both parents incarcerated, statistics show.

“That shows the ripple effect of what incarceration does to a family, how it spreads its web throughout a community when families are torn apart by incarceration,” said Maggie McFalls, community engagement coordinator for the library.

Beyond books

Librarians alternate every five weeks between male and female inmates. Two days a week, the librarians teach them how to get a job and manage money. They hold a monthly book club.

Once a month, librarians read, sing or play games with the children — anything to distract them — while the inmates return to their cells.

Amy McNicholas Kroll, the jail's administrator of re-entry, said the library's services such as classes on managing spending and repairing credit scores have taught inmates that the library is more than just a place to get books.

“It's given some guys an incentive to do better on the outside,” she said.

Representatives with national library and jail groups say many jails have programs that bring materials to inmates, but few have the array of services the Carnegie Library offers.

“If we don't want a high level of recidivism, we should be helping people get skills so they can be successful when they get out,” said Carolyn Anthony, president of the Public Library Association.

Renewing closeness

When the program started, librarians did not know what to expect. Amid the bedlam of March Madness and Jerry Springer blaring on television, the room quickly quieted. People dragged chairs across the floor, and turned curiously to the teacher.

During a recent class, 29 male inmates sat in hard plastic chairs as Hensley discussed the ins-and-outs of credit reports, bankruptcy and identity theft.

Jerome Banks, 21, of East Liberty learned how to balance his checkbook and make bank deposits and withdrawals.

“Actually, it's helping me out, because I'm trying to start my own cleaning company,” he said before his release.

Compared to the glass barrier separating inmates from loved ones during typical meetings, a contact visit is the Cadillac of privileges. Jail administrators award it to inmates with low risk of escaping or fighting but those who might repeat their offenses.

During these visits, the men of Pod 1B are allowed to hug wives or girlfriends. They can play with their kids; jail staffers snap Polaroids to hand out to the families. A parent can even change a baby's diaper.

Moving forward

Clara Frison, mother of Frison-Starr, said her son needs to be with Issiah.

“He loves his Dad. He hasn't seen him in a while, so he's going to cry,” she said.

David Weston of Tarentum is grateful for the librarian who entertained his daughter Nevaer, 2, before and after their contact visit. Weston, 26, walked with her, fed her juice and cookies, and held her before their tearful goodbye.

“It was tough to see her leave, and to know I made mistakes and couldn't go back with her,” he said.

The Carnegie Library might expand its Literacy Unlocked program by working with halfway houses to offer computer classes to ex-inmates. McFalls said the program is a “teaser” to attract inmates and their families to library branches.

She hopes the emotions that arise during contact visits at the jail continually remind inmates of the effect time behind bars can have on a family.

“Hopefully,” she said, “it's enough of a reminder that their children do not (have to) come back to jail.”

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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