Harris County Public Library's mission is to provide information and resources to enrich lives and strengthen communities through innovative services within and beyond our walls. Since 2016, "beyond our walls" has included going inside the walls of Harris County juvenile detention facilities. HCPL works in partnership with Harris County Juvenile Probation Department to provide library services and programs to incarcerated youth at facilities across the county. HCPL has updated, reorganized, and expanded small libraries at some JPD facilities, not only bringing in new books that speak to the young people housed there but making the collections more user-friendly. HCPL provides weekly mobile library services to centers that do not have onsite libraries.
The dedication of Harris County Juvenile Probation and HCPL staff come together to show young people within the system that there are pathways to better lives through education. "The books and work we do with the young people in JPD facilities are lifelines," says Linda Stevens, HCPL Division Director of Programs, Partnerships & Outreach at HCPL, "Time spent reading is an opportunity for them to see the world in different ways, to see that there are different choices that can be made." No one knows this better than Akila Washington, HCPL's Juvenile Detention Outreach Specialist.
Staff Spotlight: Akila Washington, Juvenile Detention Outreach Specialist
Akila Washington is a Juvenile Detention Outreach Specialist. Though the partnership is between HCJPD and HCPL, Washington is the one who makes it a reality. Every week, she visits multiple facilities to serve the patrons inside. A former teacher at HISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Washington is no stranger to coming to work in a building filled with kids. The circumstances, however, are quite different.
“Depending on the facility, there’s a bit of a different process,” Washington said. “If I’m at either Youth Village or Leadership Academy where they have an actual library, I go in, I set up. Just like you would in any public library, I have my computer, I have my scanner, I have my library cards. The facilities bring the residents in, and then, they do their checkouts. I give book suggestions, they have about, depending on the facility, maybe a 15-minute rotation time to come through, peruse, and choose their books.”
At the downtown location Washington also serves, there is no library.
“We have tons of books on two carts, and myself and a program coordinator, we literally roll the carts from one floor to the next, unit to unit,” Washington said. Each floor has three units, and each unit takes up to twelve residents.
“So, we’re literally up and down the elevator all day, rolling carts. I just kind of set up my laptop and scanner where I can. The residents are able to check out books from the rolling cart.”
Circulation takes up the bulk of Washington’s time at the facilities. Currently, she is the only Juvenile Detention Outreach Specialist, which makes it difficult to fit into programming. Back in January 2021, when Washington was first hired, the opposite was true.
The facilities followed strict Covid regulations, so in-person visits from the library stopped. Washington, like many librarians and teachers across the country, turned to virtual interactions instead. They read short stories, had book discussions, and solved riddles.
“The programming is anything literacy-based that’s fun and engaging,” Washington said. “Getting them to read without realizing that I'm making them read and think.”
But once the facilities allowed her to resume in-person library services in April 2021, it cut into programming time. The priority, Washington said, is to make sure they have books in the units to read, for when they aren’t doing activities. She comes every week to allow the children to return a book, renew or check something new out.
“The library lady is here! The library lady is here!” That’s what the residents say when they see Washington. Their excitement over reading is what she enjoys most, Washington said.
She recounted a time when an older resident told her, “Miss, this is my first time ever reading a book.” He knew how to read and had been read to before, but was 16 years old the first time he read a book on his own. “I love this book!” he said and wanted to keep rereading the graphic novel he had checked out.
“We provided him with an opportunity,” Washington said. “And now he knows the joy of reading. Hopefully, if he gets that itch when he’s out in the free, then he will decide to pick up another book.”
Like every audience, the kids have their favorites. Usually, they like books they can relate to, with characters who have similar lives. “Bronxwood and Tyrell, those are two of the most popular. There’s a series—it’s Snitch, Takedown, and Street Pharm, those are really, really popular fiction books.” For nonfiction, they particularly enjoyed A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown.
“That book, from the minute I brought it in, I literally haven’t seen it since. It stays off the cart,” Washington said. The cover has colorful confetti, and the boys dismissed it until Washington told them to read the back.
“Oh yeah, Imma check this book out! You need to read this book man! This that hot stuff!” the boys said to Washinton and then to each other. Over time, the residents have come to trust Washington’s suggestions and she has a good handle on the books they’ll like. Sometimes though, she’s still surprised.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid is super popular with the boys!” Washington said. “Because they always want the urban books, the gang-related books, the drug books, I was so shocked. Diary of a Wimpy Kid never makes its way back to the cart. Because they’re so hard, that really did shock me, that they were so into that series, but they love it.”
“It's the kid in them,” she continued. “They lived these adult lives and want to portray these images of being hard. But I think Diary of a Wimpy Kid probably taps into that kid that they actually are. That kid that’s deep inside of them, that they try to hide from the world, and from their friends and their peers.”
Every resident is a child. They can come into the facilities as young as 10 years old, up to 17. On their 18th birthday, if they’re still there, Washington explained, they’re shipped out to County, for adults.
The difficulty of incarceration cannot be understated. Even for visitors like Washington, the impact of a stay in these facilities can be felt.
“They’re not the only ones locked in. We have to be locked in as well because they’re not supposed to come out,” she
said. “Having to be literally buzzed in and out of everywhere you go. I mean. from the restroom to everywhere. I think that was the part that took me the longest to get used to.”
Washington is more used to it now but being locked into place is still an uneasy experience. If you are a person who has never been within a correctional facility, you don’t know what it’s like, she said. And the residents are children, not adults. A visitor might see a fight or a child having an outburst from being put up. Those are hard parts too.
Being a teacher helped her understand and deal with those moments, much like it helped her build her programing through an educational lens. But being a teacher also came with its own fears.
“Another hard part was—will I see any of my students in here?”
Over the last year, Washington has seen two of her former students.
According to statistics provided by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, over 36,000 juveniles are held in residential placement facilities on any given day. Texas holds 123 juveniles in facilities per 100,000 juveniles in the general population. While youth placed in Harris County Juvenile facilities did decline this last year, there are still many children living in a lockdown that has not ended.
For Washington, being able to give residents a public library experience within the facility is deeply important.
“One of the things I like about the partnership, is while people can donate books within the units, I believe that the HCPL and JPD partnership provides the residents with a more structured real-world library experience,” Washington said.
A lot of the children have never been to a library, but now when a resident is new, they see Washington and are filled with questions. We have library cards? Do we get to keep those? Can I have it when I leave? The excitement is palpable.
“This partnership exposes the residents to the opportunities they weren’t familiar with prior to engaging with us in the correctional facilities.”
Like any library worker, Washington hopes to foster a love of reading with each visit. For her, and for HCPL, every resident she meets is as much a patron of the library as anyone else.
“Going in, already the kids are already counted out,” she said. “‘Oh you’re locked up, you’re in jail, so you did something bad.’ But once you go in and you interact with them, you just see they are people, they are humans, they are real people with real feelings, real-life experiences. Some of them are just products of their environments. So I really enjoy the fact that the library is providing them with an opportunity and exposure to things that the people directly influencing their lives don’t value.”