In New Jersey and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, people returning from incarceration have a special advocate in their community—their local public library. Fresh Start @ Your Library is a New Jersey State Library program offered in partnership with the New Jersey State Parole Board, the Long Branch Free Public Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the New Jersey State Department of Labor & Workforce Development. The program is funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The 2-year grant runs through August 31, 2021, but the Fresh Start @ Your Library program had modest beginnings in 2009, prior to receiving the grant. Fresh Start @ Your Library began when Long Branch Free Public Library Director Tonya Garcia saw many of her community members, including family members, returning to prison because of a lack of opportunities for work and housing when they came home.

Garcia began leading group workshops for formerly incarcerated individuals that taught computer, job search, and resume writing skills. But she found that formerly incarcerated individuals did not want to be seen joining a group session that was clearly labeled for people who had been in prison. She moved to one-on-one sessions to preserve the anonymity of the individual so that nobody would know why they were meeting with a librarian. In addition, Garcia secured the resources to hire a social worker to help assess the patron’s needs.

Today, Nicole Warren, LSW, and Sarah Swiderski, LSW, are library social workers for Fresh Start @ Your Library, which has expanded to six libraries in New Jersey and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Jondhi Harrell is the program manager for the Fresh Start program and supervises the social workers as they serve their patrons. The Fresh Start team believes the library is a natural place to offer services for formerly incarcerated individuals. “In a prison setting, libraries have always been a safe space, Harrell says, “a place to learn, work on your case, gain knowledge, and try to change your life. Formerly incarcerated people respond to an environment that is not only safe but familiar.”

“If you talk to librarians or staff in a public library, it feels safe,” Warren says. “Every day, library staff get many formerly incarcerated people coming in saying, ‘How do I get my birth certificate?’, or ‘I need help with my resume,’ or ‘I just got home, and I don’t know how to find this service.’” Warren points out that public libraries offer free Internet access and have information about a wealth of resources. Hence, they are a natural ally for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking services and help. She notes that New Jersey recently passed legislation that says that individuals are supposed to leave prison with ID, including their birth certificate if they need it, and have medical care lined up, but that doesn’t always happen.

Unfortunately for Warren and Swiderski, the beginning of the grant coincided with the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both social workers had to pivot quickly to offer services virtually, by phone, email, and Zoom. Still, they have served roughly 125 individuals one-on-one and more patrons at virtual resource fairs. Most of their clients are men in their 30s and 40s, though they have served everyone from teens to those in their 80s. According to Harrell, as the pandemic progressed and the program began an intensive marketing campaign, more women also began to sign up for the program.

The most pressing problems they see are unemployment, accessible housing, and lack of legal ID. The grant includes funds for each participating library to offer GED classes to 50 individuals. “In each county served by the program, the Department of Labor has a reentry specialist we can refer people to who has a listing of jobs that are open to formerly incarcerated individuals,” Warren explains. “The reentry specialist can also help assess the individual’s skills and offer any additional training they may need.”

Neither Warren nor Swiderski have needed to refer the individuals they serve to mental health or substance use treatment. However, providers like partnering with Fresh Start—specifically, substance use treatment providers—as they have had trouble helping individuals find work and other resources when they finish treatment. Fresh Start @ Your Library has collaborated with Taylor Care Adult Behavioral Health and Recovery Centers of America, among others. “Some of the skills that are necessary to transition successfully are beyond the capacity of individuals dealing with trauma and mental health issues,” Harrell explains. “That is where the expertise and experience of trained social workers are impactful.”

Fresh Start @ Your Library works with individuals at any point in their reentry journey, whether they have just returned home or were incarcerated years ago. Swiderski adds, “I need to mention how important the community relationships are, especially with other organizations. We participate in a Reentry Task Force every month, and it’s great to know that all these organizations are out there wanting to help people returning to the community.”

Warren believes the stigma associated with incarceration remains a significant barrier and is evident even among individuals who work in the justice system. “I just wish the larger community knew about the challenges of reentry,” she says. “I think people lack a lot of empathy for that experience and are quick to judge, even though the person has done their time.”

One of the unique aspects of the Fresh Start Program is that the perspective of formerly incarcerated people is the primary focus. “Listening to program participants, acting as a liaison with returning citizens who serve as mentors, and building relationships with community organizations have been foundational in the program’s success,” Harrell says. “As a person with lived experience, I appreciate having input and being able to craft a program that speaks to the needs of this population.”

Formerly incarcerated people with ties inside the state’s prisons recommend the program to those coming home and those in need. Although the pandemic has affected service availability, the number of those helped is on the upswing as programs begin to reopen. Harrell believes the purchase of billboards and New Jersey Transit bus advertising has also raised the numbers of those seeking services.

As more of the state’s libraries physically open, Swiderski is eager to provide in-person services again. “Luckily, the two libraries I work in have pretty much reopened, with limited capacity, so I’m going to start the transition of going back into the library,” she says. “Traffic is still kind of low, according to our librarians, but I think it’s important to at least start getting back into the library, if nothing else than to show my face.”

Since grant funding ends in August, the New Jersey State Library has applied for a second round of funding. This time, they hope to focus more on services for women, specifically around trauma, according to Swiderski. “A lot of women experience trauma throughout their lives, before being incarcerated, during incarceration, and afterward,” she explains. They will offer the evidence-based trauma curriculum, Seeking Safety, which also addresses substance use issues, Warren points out.

Libraries around the country can benefit from the work of Fresh Start @ Your Library because the grant requirements included the development of a toolkit for replicability.

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