Library Services in Correctional Settings

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Library Services in Correctional Settings


Although the United States is home to fewer than 5 percent of the world’s people, it houses almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008, for example, the United States had a total prison population of 2,304,115, whereas China, the country with the second-largest inmate population, had 1,620,000 in mid-2009 (King’s College London 2010).

Jails and state and federal prisons in the United States are overcrowded, and every year more people enter the country’s correctional system. Once the gates close behind them, they are virtually cut off from the world. They become part of a sub-society that is often poor and powerless, and the correctional facilities that house them often fail to provide adequate rehabilitation programs. (During the current economic recession, many jail and prison staff who do not perform security duties and are employed as educators and counselors have lost their jobs.)

Providing meaningful and sufficient access to educational and other information materials plays a vital role in the rehabilitation of offenders. Reading and talking to others can help stimulate the mind and keep people from feeling lonely and helpless and even from going insane (Sutherland 1997). Many offenders turn to religious or spiritual books while incarcerated to help them achieve clarity and find purpose in their lives. This fosters critical thinking about decisions they are facing and possible outcomes once they are released (American Library Association 2007).

The United States and Canada, as well as the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, have identified the need for prisoner access to educational and recreational reading materials and have adopted standards and/or guidelines for planning and implementing these services (Lehman 2003). In 2010, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted a resolution, “The Prisoner’s Right to Read: an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” emphasizing the importance of allowing incarcerated people to have access to basic information. Many countries, however, have not yet accepted that prisoners have the right to receive assistance with basic education and rehabilitation, let alone the right to read simply for pleasure.

This article describes the importance of providing library services within correctional facilities and examines the role of correctional librarians, the challenges they encounter on a daily basis, and the positive influence they have on the incarcerated. The terms jail, penitentiary and prison are used synonymously throughout the article, although they differ greatly in various aspects. Readers who wish to learn more about how these institutions differ from each other are advised to consult relevant literature, such as Black’s Law Dictionary.

Libraries on the Inside

The concept of “libraries on the inside” is not new. Bashore (2003) relates the story of a prison library that was founded in a penitentiary in Utah in 1879. This library had vanished by 1884, but in early 1887 a group of inmates established another library, presumably furnished at least partly with donated materials.

Research shows a positive connection between participation in educational activities and reduced recidivism (Futcher 2008), and libraries can play a vital role in strengthening this connection by providing literature and adequate learning materials for structured programs and even college classes. These programs can help offenders focus on restorative outcomes, learn to evaluate their thought patterns, and avoid engaging in future criminal behavior (Gilman 2008).

Changing Life through Literature is a program that began in Massachusetts in response to the need to find alternatives to incarceration. Instead of being sentenced to jail time, offenders are sentenced to probation if they agree to complete a literary seminar under the direction of a professor. By reading selected books such as James Dickey’s Deliverance and Jack London’s Sea Wolf, offenders are given the opportunity to investigate and explore aspects of themselves, talk to peers, and communicate ideas and feelings in a classroom where every comment is welcome and equally important. Other states have since adopted this program, and many judges are partnering with probation officers and educational institutions to explore this form of alternative sentencing.

Public and academic libraries often are encouraged to partner with prisons and jails by offering inter-library loan services to ensure access to educational materials. These materials are often rare in prison libraries, which cater mostly to recreational readers and the occasional high school equivalency diploma candidate (Asher 2006). Collaboration between public, academic and prison libraries greatly enhances public awareness of prisoners’ rights and needs and encourages other public facilities to consider partnering with prisons to help offenders make a successful transition when they re-enter society (Bouchard and Kunze 2003).

If prisons are to develop an adequate collection of information materials and provide effective library services to inmates, it is vital that prison authorities hire library and information professionals. Librarians have the knowledge and skills to make the library an integral part of the overall effort to educate and rehabilitate offenders. They can serve as a connection between the prison library and libraries on the outside, and they can help enhance public awareness of, and support for, efforts to educate prisoners and reduce recidivism.

Librarians Behind Bars

Although a prison may seem like a frightening and restricted workplace, the benefits of working in a prison library outweigh the challenges that correctional librarians typically experience. That said, working in a correctional library means working under circumstances to which most people, let alone librarians, are not accustomed. Lehman (2000) points out that prison librarians must not only possess the necessary qualifications in library and information science but must also be able to work in an environment dedicated to balancing the public’s interest in safety with offenders’ desire for rehabilitation.

For example, during my time at the Peumansend Creek Regional Jail (PCRJ) in Bowling Green, Virginia, many offenders asked me to provide addresses of people outside the jail that they wanted to contact. Under normal circumstances, a librarian would not hesitate to look up an address, but a jail librarian has to be careful–a person may not want an inmate to know where he or she lives, and providing the address may put that person’s life in danger.

Librarians also have to cope with communication and cultural challenges posed by working in a diverse environment. Male offenders from certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, for example, may have difficulty accepting female staff as authority figures (Shirley 2003). Library collections and programs must be updated frequently to accommodate inmates who speak different languages and have different cultural needs and expectations.

Prison librarians are also obligated to control the use and spread of items that can pose security concerns or be used as weapons. Library books are preferred places to hide and exchange contraband, which can range from notes passed between inmates to potentially dangerous substances and objects. Furthermore, library supplies and furniture can be destroyed or used for other purposes, such as to construct weapons (Bouchard and Winnicki 2000).

Correctional officers at PCRJ frequently searched the housing units, classrooms and library spaces for weapons and other contraband. Books that were returned to the library were inspected to make sure the borrower did not write anything in the book, either in plain words or a coded message. More than once I had to take books out of circulation and erase messages that were written or drawn on pages. Whenever a group of inmates left the library, I had to count my pencils to make sure nobody had taken one back to the housing unit–a simple item like this could be used as a weapon against another inmate or staff member.

Probably the touchiest subject among prison librarians is censorship. Certain reading materials are considered by prison authorities to pose a threat to security and are therefore banned from libraries. Officials at PCRJ, for example, did not allow the library to circulate any gang-related materials, sexually explicit content, or true-crime books. I inspected all magazines and censored or physically removed any pages displaying nudity, certain tattoos, and violent content. I also removed portions of newspapers that included mentions of staff members or their relatives, reports about the jail or its inmates, and reports about crimes that might somehow be connected to one of more of our inmates.

The Virginia Department of Corrections maintains a 97-page list of unacceptable publications and topics, many of which an average person probably would not consider inappropriate (such as Dungeons and Dragons and books about Yoga and electricity). While I understood the need to ban certain publications, I had difficulty grasping the reasoning behind some decisions. I did not quite see the point of banning Harry Potter books from the library because they deal with magic and witchcraft while allowing books that deal with drugs, sex and crime.

Perspectives on Security

Correctional librarians must always be aware of their surroundings and remain on alert while inmates visit the library. To be sufficiently prepared for their role, librarians should receive extensive training to acquaint them with the problems they will encounter in this challenging environment. Trainers should provide an overview of dos and don’ts related to facilities policies and procedures to help librarians understand their role and responsibilities.

In addition to onsite training by prison officials, library schools should consider offering classes on correctional librarianship to prepare students for, and promote the importance of, serving behind bars. Ideally, these classes would be offered in conjunction with state departments of corrections and would include information about working at a correctional facility and a visit (if possible) to such a facility.

Prison officials need to acknowledge that librarians are not correctional officers and have a different perspective on security and the extent to which prisoners should be assisted. It is critical for librarians to understand that offenders need to be treated differently than patrons and users of public and other libraries, as they may try to manipulate staff they perceive as weak. From my experience, it is also vital to gain or improve skills that can aid in a confrontational situation, as these will occur on a regular basis.

Some inmates will do a lot to gain your trust and use you to the point where you get in trouble or even commit a crime. This is one of the first lessons I learned during my training, and it is imperative to keep this in mind at all times. You will also deal with staff who do not consider library services to inmates necessary or worthwhile. It is your job to help them understand that some inmates actually appreciate these services and, upon release, use them to their advantage to improve their education and skills.

A Constant Battle

Being a correctional librarian is a stressful job that requires constant attention, and it will change some of your opinions and the way you look at things and people. Even now, in my current position as a law librarian, I cannot completely rid myself of the training I received and situations I experienced. Every time I receive a letter from an inmate (usually someone in the Rappahannock Regional Jail), I ask myself why he or she wants a specific piece of information and whether it would be a threat to security if I gave it to him.

Money is also a challenge. Contrary to the inmate population, which is growing, prison budgets are decreasing. Not only do we need to educate professionals in corrections about the importance and value of our work, we also have to make the public understand that their tax money is being spent on worthwhile services. As mentioned before, there is a relation between recidivism rates and educational programs in penitentiaries. If we manage to collect data about this and compile it into concise reports, it will be easier to get our point across.

Correctional librarians should also share their stories and encourage their colleagues to look into the possibility of partnering with a local jail or prison to offer services that might otherwise be out of reach for inmates. With shrinking budgets, these partnerships could well be a huge part of the future of correctional library services. SLA


American Library Association. 2007. Federal prisons to return religious books. American Libraries, 9. Online news story.

Asher, C. 2006. Interlibrary loan outreach to a prison: Access inside. Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Information Supply, 16: 27-33.

Bashore, M.L. 2003. Behind adobe walls and iron bars: The Utah territorial penitentiary library. Libraries & Culture, 38: 236-249.

Black, H.C. 1990. Black’s Law Dictionary (Sixth ed.). St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing.

Bouchard, J., and A. Winnicki. 2000. You found what in a book? Contraband control in the prison library. Library & Archival Security, 16: 57-61.

Bouchard, J., and L. Kunze. 2003. Teaching diverse students in a corrections setting with assistance from the library. Journal of Correctional Education, 54: 66-69.

Futcher, G. 2008. How literacy programmes help rehabilitate young offenders. The New Zealand Library & Information Management Journal, 51: 50-59.

Gilman, I. 2008. Beyond books: Restorative librarianship in juvenile detention centers. Public Libraries, 47: 59-66.

King’s College London. 2010. Prison Brief for China. King’s College London: International Center for Prison Studies. Online news report.

Lehman, V. 2003. Planning and implementing prison libraries: Strategies and resources. IFLA Journal, 29: 301-307.

_____. 2000. Prison librarians needed: A challenging career for those with the right professional and human skills. IFLA Journal, 26, 123-128.

Liptak, A. 2008. Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations. The New York Times, 23 April.

Selnick, S. 2004. READ/Orange County: Changing lives through literacy. Public Libraries, 43: 53-56.

Shirley, G.L. 2003. Correctional libraries, library standards, and diversity. Journal of Correctional Education, 54: 70-74.

Sutherland, T. 1997. Freedom in captivity. Logos, 8: 83-4.

3 thoughts on “Library Services in Correctional Settings

  1. Sandra Burdi says:

    I found your article very interesting since I recently applied for a position in the library at our local prison. In trying to prepare myself before my interview, I searched high and low and understandably so, information about Prison Libraries is just about null. Your article gave me a better insight to the challenges and restrictions which I did inquire about during my interview. I currently work in an academic library and before that worked 15 years in a public library. I want to say that yes, I can absolutely handle this job and hope that my naive perception doesn’t blind me to the reality of what its really like.

  2. says:

    So glad you found it helpful! I loved working at the jail, but be aware that there are some things you will hear/see/smell that are not the most pleasant in the world. The most important thing is to show the inmates that they can’t mess with you (and trust me, they will try). Let me know if you have any more specific questions, I’d be glad to help.

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