Reflections on Partnering with a Juvenile Detention Center: The Uncaged Project

The Teen Center and Studio NPL, a YOUmedia Learning Lab, at Nashville Public Library were the recipients of a 2015 LRNG Educator Innovator grant funded by the National Writing Project, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign. We partnered with educators from the Harold Love School located within Woodland Hills Youth Development Center, a juvenile detention center, that houses incarcerated male youth between the ages of 14-19. The goal of our project was to explore connected learning by connecting in-school and out of school learning in a juvenile detention center through music and video projects designed to be self-reflective stories of how the students define freedom. The library’s partnership with Woodland Hills emerged after the facility lost funding for the school librarian due to budget cuts. This work has the potential for tremendous impact since incarcerated youth are disconnected from their families, friends, digital technology, and peer-supported learning opportunities during the period of their incarceration.

For more information about the 2015 LRNG Innovators grant:

How to Get Started?
This resource is a series of reflections on questions that emerged when we started our partnership with the juvenile detention center, challenges we faced, and lessons learned through the Uncaged LRNG project.

Institutional Support: How we got it and what that looked like
Getting institutional support and buy-in from your organization to bring connected learning principles and programming, and outreach services to incarcerated youth can be challenging when faced with budget/staffing shortages and time constraints. We started our partnership by addressing the gap in service to our target population (teens) and how the outreach would further fulfill the Nashville Public Library’s mission to inspire reading, advance learning, and connect our community. On a lower scale, outreach to incarcerated youth also connected to the Teen Services departmental goals outlined in our guide to outreach services for teens, which I developed with our Teen Library Manager.  Additionally, libraries have a long history of providing re-entry services to formerly incarcerated patrons and providing outreach book delivery services to currently incarcerated.

Lessons Learned: The support of your institution is vital when starting this type of outreach program. Staff leading outreach to jails and prisons can experience higher levels of burnout due to the emotional labor involved and the library’s support is vital to this program’s success. For the continued success of the outreach project, staff should schedule check-ins immediately following the visit, schedules permitting. The beginnings of our partnership was rooted in increasing access to our library’s collection through book delivery, which will connect with every library’s mission.

Identifying a Contact
Before embarking on a partnership with a juvenile detention center, it is not only important to identify a point person from your organization, but it is also beneficial to identify a contact within the facility. This contact may be an administrator, teacher, or volunteer coordinator. In this context, consistency is extremely valuable to build trust with students, administrators, and the security team. The security team will be your first stop to gain entry into the facility and will help you determine restricted items and learn the process of how to gain entry into the facility. When we first started visiting the facility, our initial contact was a staff member who floated between three youth development centers across the state, so she was not always available when we arrived. Security staff would call for her to escort us in the facility, but she would be on a site visit in a different part of the state. Since the students were typically in school during our class visits, the principal was often summoned to be our escort. However, he was not part of the initial planning meetings and was unaware of what we were doing or why we were there. He became our primary contact, which  It is a good idea to have an elevator pitch prepared that outlines who you are, your organizational affiliation, and the purpose of your visit.

Lessons Learned: It will be helpful to identify the major players currently working within the institution. This often goes beyond the person you will be working with during programming. Set aside time, to meet administrators, educators, and security staff at the facility.  The more people that know who you are and what you’re doing, the better support you will have.

Assess the Current Learning Environment
The classrooms at Woodland Hills look like traditional classrooms at first glance, but they function in markedly different ways. Students are in mixed age/grade classrooms, which they enter at various times throughout the school year based on their entry date. Teachers provide limited generalized group instruction, but the majority of student work occurs one-on-one with their teacher. Similar to traditional classrooms, teachers manage their classrooms with different styles of instruction and behavior management. We found that in the beginning of our partnership it was helpful to connect with students in their classrooms for broader reach, but to also have programming in more neutral spaces like the facility’s library or an empty classroom.

Lessons Learned: We moved our programs out of the traditional classroom space and created a neutral learning environment in the library. The teens felt less pressure to conform to traditional learning models which resulted in a more relaxed environment with low barriers of entry for participation.

Student Interest
We visited each classroom to give all students an opportunity to connect with the library through signing up for a library card and filling out a general interest survey. Our survey was designed to gauge student interest in library programming. It is vitally important to the success of your program to set aside time to determine student interest. In this environment, you will learn to balance the interest of different stakeholders within the facility (administrators, staff, educators, and students). Incarcerated youth have little to no choice in the facility, so they welcome any opportunity to speak their truth and express their feelings. Initially, we had low participation rates because our planned programming was disconnected from the youth interest.

Lessons Learned: Incarcerated youth have limited opportunities to engage in creative programs guided by their own interests. We gained buy in and increased participation in our programs by highlighting the opportunity and freedom to engage in exploring their own interests in music and video production. Many incarcerated youth are weary of new adults coming into the facility and telling them what to do in an environment where their freedom is already extremely limited.

Finding the Right Mentor
The grant funding included $10,000 to hire a new mentor to work solely on the LRNG project. Working in a juvenile justice facility requires a slightly different skill set, than traditional YOUmedia mentorship; therefore, we tweaked Studio NPL’s standard mentor job description and created a new position, the Teen Justice Mentor. Our team weighed the pros and cons of including the juvenile detention center setting in the job description. We all agreed that the mentor should know the population and environment they would be working in to make sure they have a desire to work with this group.  Cultural competency and a background in social justice programming with at risk youth are important assets for working with this population. The emotional labor of working with students who have experienced extreme cases of abuse and neglect is another challenge to consider when hiring a teen justice mentor. The mentor should also possess a strong ability to create healthy boundaries with the youth while remaining approachable.

Lessons Learned: It’s ok if you and/or the mentor figure out that this is not a good match. This type of partnership may require additional checkpoints to assess what’s working and what’s not working for the mentor, the library, and the detention center.

Open Labs to build trust
When we started the LRNG project, we quickly realized the value in setting aside specific time to build trust with the youth. Through hosting a series of “open lab” sessions this gave the teens an opportunity to learn who we are and what we do in a neutral setting with low barriers of entry.  Open labs were program days without a specific program or instructional goal in mind, besides getting to know the teens and letting them have an opportunity to freely explore new technology.

Lessons Learned: We slowed down our programming schedule to incorporate more time to build trust with the youth through an open lab format. We brought various technical equipment, usually iPads and DSLR’s, and set them out on tables and the teens were free to hang out and mess around with tech without a prompt or activity. Mentors were on hand to provide one on one advice and technical expertise, but the teens typically used the time to experiment and troubleshoot how to use the equipment.

Related Resources