CDCR Librarian Brandy Buenafe shares empowering love of books

CDCR librarian holds books.
Brandy Buenafe, Principal Librarian for the Office of Correctional Education.

‘Giving someone a book increases their chance of not reoffending’

Librarian Brandy Buenafe says her best childhood memory is riding her bicycle to her neighborhood library every morning during summer vacation. She was 10 years old. There, she would search for the library’s worn copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and continue to read the poignant story of an 11-year-old dealing with a troubled family.  She’s not sure why she didn’t simply get a library card and check-out the book, but she knows she found a daily haven in that quiet place.

Years later, Buenafe is the CDCR principal librarian, overseeing the operations of CDCR’s 129 libraries. It’s the state’s largest library system. All 34 institutions have at least one library. They offer legal and leisure reading material, literacy programming, book clubs, reading challenges, and essay contests.

Librarian Buenafe credits family’s experience for career

After receiving her master’s degree in library sciences, she consciously chose a career in corrections.

“I have a history of incarceration in my family,” Buenafe said. “I knew I wanted to effect some positive change, give back to CDCR in a different way. Incarcerated people can continue lifelong learning and self-rehabilitation in libraries and it was moving to me.”

She started as an entry-level librarian in 2007 at California State Prison, Corcoran. She remembers the jolt she experienced when she first went through a sally port and heard the clang of the electric gate behind her.

“I wondered what I had gotten myself into,” she said.

Soon, she discovered she loved the job. The former prospective lawyer found satisfaction in helping incarcerated people with legal research. She enjoyed curating reading selections and developing new programs. She eventually promoted to Pleasant Valley State Prison, then in 2014, was chosen to head the Department’s library program.

Digital literacy is also a main focus

Buenafe strives to offer comprehensive digital literacy classes. It became a passion after seeing an incarcerated person serving a life sentence who did not know what it meant to “click” the mouse. She also ensures CDCR’s digital Automated Rehabilitative Catalog and Information Discovery (ARCAID) reentry resources were available in all libraries.

ARCAID is a one-stop shop connecting users to a database of thousands of community resources such as jobs, housing and food banks. Forms and documents also are available.

“So much recidivism happens because people don’t get situated before their release, and don’t get a job,” she said. “(ARCAID) allows them to develop a plan, to get prepared.”

She’s launched initiatives to provide her staff with professional development twice a year, including attending the California Library Association conference. It allows her staff to stay current with librarianship trends and offer the best service possible to the incarcerated population. She’s also proud of the unique activities libraries develop and their ability to keep library activities going during the pandemic.

Librarian Buenafe: Higher reading levels reduce recidivism

At Avenal State Prison, people are challenged to read and write book reports on a 100 books from different genres. A reward that they receive is the ability to check out three books at a time instead of only two.

“With Amazon and other options that people have, they forget how precious it is to have easy access to information,” Buenafe said.

At California Institution for Men, frequent writing contests boost literacy. At Folsom State Prison, a bring-your-own book club fosters discussion about the books they’re reading.

Buenafe said the goal is to be the least restrictive as possible while providing reading material that is socially positive and shows good relationships.

In the end, Buenafe said, her job is about public safety.

“We know that when people have higher reading levels, their risk of recidivism decreases. Each time someone reads, their reading level increases. So giving someone a book increases their chance of not reoffending. It’s not just a nice thing, it’s a crucial thing.”

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