Prison Libraries: How Do They Work? Why Are They Important?
Prison librarians have many stories to tell.
Do you know that prison libraries provide access to a broad range of written materials to help inmates improve their literacy skills or keep existing skills sharp? Or that every Federal Bureau of Prisons institution has inmate leisure and law libraries? Both are usually part of the institution’s education department and are accessible to all inmates in the general population. Thus, every prison library requires at least one trained (and dedicated) prison librarian.
Like public, academic, and other “civilian” libraries, prison libraries have varying collections of books, periodicals, and some moving image media. Most federal prison education departments subscribe to USA Today, the New York Times, and other local and national newspapers. Popular magazines include Time, Sports Illustrated, Car and Driver, Rolling Stone, and People. As for books, you can find many bestsellers in the library through prison purchases or inmate donations.
While civilian libraries may have amenities like popular reading materials, personal retreat areas, adequate staffing, and even learning centers, prison libraries are limited to services that fit within security protocols and significantly impact the greatest number of inmates.
But who’s responsible for maintaining these libraries (and their materials) and the activities they support? And what distinguishes prison librarian jobs from those of other librarians?
A Typical Day for a Prison Librarian
In some ways, a prison librarian’s job can parallel that of a public or academic librarian. However, working with incarcerated people poses challenges unique to prison life. As Andrew Hart, a former prison librarian, writes:
A prison library’s mission is to provide inmates with educational and recreational resources, including books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and library programming. Hopefully, this can aid in the rehabilitation process and provide a means of escape and distraction so inmates stay out of trouble. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop in prison, and having a book in them is much better than a weapon,” says Hart.
Prison libraries frequently fall short of the prison’s priorities and are often overlooked. So, book donations are the institution’s lifeblood — no matter if they are books already read and circulated among the inmates or provided by family and friends. Collaborating with local bookstores helps prison libraries find new books to replace outdated materials. Hart says, “When I received book donations, it was like Christmas morning in the library.”
As part of a prison librarian’s everyday responsibilities, their librarians will get requests for a unique mix of interlibrary loan offerings. Most are benign, but some materials are prohibited per prison policy. Since prison security is a top priority, some rights can be withdrawn.
Many prison libraries are open six days a week, two shifts daily: morning and afternoon or afternoon and evening. Being a prison librarian can be highly stressful, and many who accept the role don’t last long. For example, there are several situations where prison librarians must track and count the inmates (patrons) they serve. As one former prison librarian points out:
"I’d get to work about 30 minutes before the library opened. If it was the morning, there would already be inmates waiting outside the door. If it was the afternoon, I’d get there right at the count time before lunch so the yard would be empty as they were all in their bunks. Each shift was open for about 3 or 4 hours. Then we’d close for an hour or two for count and the meal, then reopen."
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Everyday Challenges Prison Librarians Face
Unlike his public library counterparts, Hart had to sign up for self-defense courses, check returned books for blood stains, and be mindful of attempts to manipulate the library’s privileges. He says (referring to his interactions with inmates), “You can be friendly, but you can’t be friends.”
Another former prison librarian, “Oryx,” explains that there were a lot of prison rules she disagreed with and still does, such as making sure inmates have dressed appropriately since security might come by on rounds at any time and see them with untucked shirts or wearing hats (sometimes hiding contraband). “Oryx” would be reprimanded for falling short of her duties by letting inmates come in looking sloppy. She adjusted to the unfamiliar rules because she did not want any trouble.
Although free access to information is a priority for a prison librarian, safety and security are the most important considerations. Hardcover books, CDs, and publications with staples are prohibited in prison libraries since prisoners can sharpen them, use them as body armor, or use them as weapons.
Oddly enough, the fragrance samples in some magazines are prized by male and female inmates and must be removed to prevent their use as currency to obtain illegal “favors” or items. These “smellgoods” may be used as currency for all sorts of unauthorized activities the prison population might engage in.
Prison libraries still encounter bureaucratic obstacles, even with all of the benefits they offer. The longest-running is censorship or the idea that specific titles aren’t suited for incarcerated populations. But who decides, and how?
Several years ago, New Jersey corrections officials were criticized for removing a book titled The New Jim Crow from circulation. This nonfiction work published in 2010 details accusations of racial discrimination in sentencing. However, such action directly conflicts with librarians’ support of freedom of speech and publication and the American Library Association’s campaign to fight censorship as part of its ethical mandates.
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Prison Libraries and Librarians Make a Significant Difference for the Incarcerated
Most inmates in America’s prisons have low levels of education, and some can barely read or write, much less use a computer. Still, of all the liberties afforded to prisoners, access to a library and its materials and activities can be one of the most useful in preparing them for new lives outside of prison.
But do you know that inmates in prison education programs are less likely to end up back in prison? Or that inmates who use the prison library regularly have higher average literacy rates than those who don’t?
While some might think access to books should be a fundamental right, many others would disagree, pointing out that libraries can be costly and burden a system already struggling to provide basic care for inmates. But on the other hand, prison library patrons tend to have lower recidivism rates following their release.
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