Q&A: Prison Librarian Philip Ephraim on the Positive Effects of Comics

Surfing the web not long ago, I stumbled across the The Importance of a Library in a Prison.” Upon reading about a collection for inmates that included comics, I became curious, especially since the librarian-author worked at Graterford Prison, not far from my home city of Philadelphia.

Digging into background on the subject, I saw that as early as 1981, ALA’s Jail Library Service stated, [C]omics particularly can reinforce and develop reading skills of low-level readers. More recently, the 2005 IFLA Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners mentions both comics and graphic novels (for both beginning readers and advanced enthusiasts) among types of materials that should be included in correctional libraries. I figured that Graterford Corrections Librarian Philip Ephraim would have a distinctive take on the value of comics for education and enjoyment, and I was delighted when he agreed to this interview.

Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison, the State Correctional Institution at Graterford (SCI-Graterford) houses over 3500 male inmates, employs 1200 staff, and has two full-service libraries that indeed stock comics and graphic novels‚ thanks to Ephraim. [For more on prison librarianship, see Michael Bemis’s “You Work Where?” and Frances Sandiford’s “Reflections of a Retired Prison Librarian.”‚ Ed.]

MC: How do you decide what to buy, and from where do you buy it?
Selections are done chiefly by the librarians and partly from inmates’ suggestions. We use Barnes & Noble for purchases.

MC: What kinds of comics-related material do you have at Graterford?
We have superheroes, manga, graphic novels, cartoon strip collections, and how-to-draw books. Some are comic books. All are in English, and they are largely shelved together. They amount to fewer than 100 titles out of 24,000 in the complete library collection, that is, less than four percent. Superheroes include Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and X-Men.

MC: What are the most popular comics?
Of comics-related books checked out in 2011, a little over half was related to manga, including how to draw manga. Spider-Man comics were the next most popular, around 17 percent. Collections of Peanuts cartoon strips added up to about eight percent, and The Mammoth Book of the Funniest Cartoons of All Time was also about eight percent. Those were at the top of the list for frequency of comics checkouts.

MC: How popular are comics compared with other leisure reading materials?
Comics materials made up one percent of all leisure checkouts in 2011. [MC: This is more than twice the proportion in the collection.] The total volume of use would have been greater if in-library use was taken into account. Comics can be read in the library or checked out. We have a leisure-book delivery service to Restricted Housing Units, where prisoners are confined to their cells except for brief exercise periods.

MC: How do the inmates react to the comics in the collection?
Many of the inmates who read our comics learn to write and draw. Many inmate comics readers find the drawings really cool. So they pick up pencils and start drawing. People learn how to draw, think, and write after reading good comics over time. Some told me they are planning to write comics series of their own soon. Many inmates say [after reading comics] that they begin to take on more serious reading materials.

When inmates have contact with comics materials, their faces light up. It reflects in their moods. As they laugh and feel entertained, their spirits lift. This decreases tension and the rates of suicide and violence. Relaxed inmates are more tolerant. This improvement in mood has an impact on the mood of the jail in terms of making the place more manageable and safer. And that is no joke!

MC: What would you like to suggest about comics in the library and in correctional libraries?
We encourage other corrections libraries to acquire comics and graphic novels and to encourage their use. Based on a research study we did about comics for leisure reading here at Graterford, I hope future studies could be carried out to answer some of these questions: A) Is there a connection between intelligence and comics reading? That is, are comics readers smarter? B) Does comics reading produce a faster reader? C) Do superhero comics readers inspire comics readers to do great deeds? D) Do superhero comics readers emulate the role models in the stories they read, e.g., become determined, fearless, and ready to die for what they love? E) Does reading comics improve reading level? F) Does reading comics lead to reading other books?

These kinds of studies could give us information to help us help our inmates.

MC: This information would certainly help libraries and educators, too. We do have some data that comics readers tend to read more and that comics reading can raise reading levels. More data on some of these questions are being collected by the nonprofit Reading with Pictures. I’ll be discussing a bit about this research in a future article.

Martha Cornog About Martha Cornog

Martha Cornog is a longtime reviewer for LJ and, with Timothy Perper, edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries (Libraries Unlimited, 2009).