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"Reading Has Given Me Hope": Bringing the Library to Incarcerated Youth

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. – Coordinated efforts by multiple County of Santa Clara agencies are bringing library services directly to incarcerated youth who currently reside in the County’s Juvenile Justice Centers.   

For years, teens in youth detention facilities in Santa Clara County had no access to libraries or reading programs. A lack of library staff made it nearly impossible to meet the reading needs of incarcerated teens, according to the Santa Clara County Library District (SCCLD).  

In response, SCCLD and the County of Santa Clara Probation Department came together to create professionally curated library spaces at the Juvenile Justice Center in San José and the Juvenile Rehabilitation Facility in Morgan Hill.   

Since 2022, a full-time teen librarian from SCCLD has worked on-site to support reading recommendations. Additionally, library staff has organized programs and activities that include book talks, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning, and art projects.   

“I’ve heard a lot of the kids say ‘oh, I’ve been waiting all week for library time',” said Chris Pennington, SCCLD Librarian.  “Once a week, the youth get to come and have a visit for about 45 minutes — they come in, they check out books, they get a public library experience. That’s been really neat because when you look around from where it started to where it is now, it’s a collection based on the interests of the youth that are here.”  

Before the program, many of the incarcerated youth said they had never set foot in a library before.

According to officials, a large majority of the youth in the juvenile justice system experience depression and anxiety, among other emotional factors.   

Providing the youth with a positive space that encourages personal growth and enrichment has the potential to improve their short-term mental health and, possibly, their future life outcomes. Initial observations from County of Santa Clara Department of Behavioral Health Services staff indicate that students who engage in reading have fewer behavioral issues and display better mental health.  

“Reading has given me a lot of hope,” said a youth detainee. “I come from a background where I am used to having pretty much nothing.... Sadly I ended up in here, but I don’t take this as a waste of time. I take it as time to learn and get better at what I do and by reading books, I can do that.”  

In 2023, the program circulated more than 5,100 books and put on nearly 800 programs for youth at both facilities. 

“This has been a labor of a lot of folks working very long and hard to bring something like this together. It’s completely unique,” said Alex Villa, Deputy Chief Probation Officer for the County. “What we’re trying to do every day is provide youth with tools, techniques, and strategies to make better decisions and learn how to navigate the community in a way that is pro-social and positive, and libraries are essential to that.”