Library Services to Disadvantaged
Library services to adult prisoners
in the United States
von Glennor Shirley
Background | Prison
Demographics | The
Library Standards | Collections
| Library Access
| Collaborations, partnerships
| Prison Library Network
Prison Library Background
State and Federal prisons house convicted inmates
who are incarcerated for longer periods than inmates in jails and
detention centers. Offenders in jails and detention centers are
either waiting judicial determination or serving short-term sentences.
State and Federal prisons provide services, including libraries
for individuals in their prisons, while jails and detention center
inmates receive services from their local counties. This article
will focus primarily on library services in State prisons.
Prisons were first established to banish and confine
the offender, subjecting him or her to hard labor. Reading was confined
to the Bibles and similar religious material aimed at inculcating
morality, the guardian of this genre was the prison chaplain, whose
responsibility was to assure the reader’s penitence.
The establishment of groups like The American
Library Association, The American Correctional Association,
and the American Prison Association, nurtured the movement
towards developing standards for new and improved library services.
This resulted in the publication of Prison Library Handbook
that was still aimed at „moral therapy”, but by 1992,
Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions was
drafted by Correctional Institutions librarians and State library
Over time, many factors contributed to the development
of prison libraries to provide the improved breadth and quality
of services that exist today. Changes were fueled by: the prison
reform movement that advocated rehabilitation over punishment, education
for a successful reentry to the community, the rights of prisoners,
and the 1977 landmark court case, Bounds vs. Smith mandating
that prisoners have law libraries and access to legal help.[Fn2]
States interpreted Bounds in a variety of ways –
some established law libraries in the prisons, providing the required
core collection of legal materials and the hours of access, others
hired legal firms, yet others using the Library Standards
as guidelines and supported services that were established on the
model of public libraries.
Since the 1980s, public and political attitudes
have reverted to favoring punishment, and in 1994, The United States
Supreme Court in Lewis vs. Casey placed restrictions on
inmates’ rights of access to the courts.[Fn3]
Consequently, many states have reduced their educational and library
services while increasing their expenditures on security.
In 2005, State and Federal prisons, local jails,
and detention centers held over 2 million prisoners who are parents
to approximately 1.5 million children under age 18. Estimates are
that 32 % of African Americans, 17 % Hispanic, and 5.9 % white males
will enter the state or federal prison system, at some point. In
2001, 6.6 % of State inmates were women, and 4 % of all prisoners
were not U.S. citizens. At some point 95 % of State prisoners will
return to the community.[Fn4]
The Library Standards
The Library Standards is the benchmark for establishing
and maintaining prison library services. It outlines access, minimum
standards for staffing, budget, facility size, and collection –
elements that are necessary for the provision of acceptable library
services in adult state and federal correctional facilities. It
includes the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights,
The Resolution on Prisoners’ Right to Read, The
Freedom to Read, and The Freedom to View. Prison Librarians
aim to emulate the Public Library’s role of libraries as community
information center, formal education support center, independent
learning center, popular materials library, and reference library.
However, services and facilities vary among and within States, depending
on State politics, individual warden’s philosophy, budget,
and also the nature of the institution. Certain prison facilities
are concerned about compliance with Federal guidelines for access
to the courts and have little interest in general library services.
Others, recognizing the importance of rehabilitation for successful
reentry into the community, have supported library collections and
services that encourage information seeking and reading for pleasure
or for self-help.
Prisoners have the same information needs as persons
in regular society, but with a greater number of them having low
education skills, they experience difficulties in articulating their
information needs or in their attempts to seek information.
In 2003, this writer used an online prison library
listserv to gather information about collection, services, staffing,
and programs for prisoners.[Fn5]
An analysis of the responses indicated that while services varied,
all librarians aim to create a balanced collection similar to that
of a public library. Generally their reference collections comprise
almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, directories and legal databases.
The general collection includes non-fiction and fiction bestsellers,
low level/high interest materials, homegrown newspapers and magazines.
Popular non-fiction reading interest includes self-help,
career, biographies, poetry, medical, psychology, religion, art,
true crime, sports, body building, writing, paranormal. Popular
fiction genre includes horror, mystery, action/adventure, romance,
and science fiction. Most libraries stock the classics although
this was generally not a high interest item among the populations.
They keep this genre because they are primarily donations from the
public, and it is part of ensuring a well-rounded collection. There
is constant demand, but never an adequate supply of multicultural
literature especially materials by and about African American history
Collections and services are limited or almost non-existent
for non-English speaking prisoners. Lack of budget and inability
to communicate due to language differences are reasons for this
deficit. One librarian stated she relies on the help of bilingual
inmates to help her communicate with other Spanish-speaking patrons.
Currently there is an intense political national anti-immigrant
movement, and a debate advocating English only as the official language.
This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on efforts to improve
collections and services for the non English-speaking individuals
among the prison population.
Library programs are largely funded from Inmate
Welfare Fund, derived from the markups on inmates’ telephone
calls and commissary purchases. When there are budget constraints,
the library and education programs are the most likely departments
to have their services reduced or eliminated. There have been a
few cases where library space was taken over and converted to living
quarters for new prisoners, and book budgets were cut to the extent
that some libraries report that their collection consists mainly
of donated items. Where state prisons have library coordinators,
they often seek supplemental funding by writing grants, or try to
enhance service by establishing more collaborative efforts with
relevant library or community partners.
Many prison librarians enhance their programs
and services by taking advantage of Federal funds available from
IMLS through Library Service and Technology Act (LSTA).[Fn6]
For example, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries (MCEL) has
used LSTA funds to purchase: a selection of books in world languages,
primarily Spanish, a small selection of books on English as a second
language, Spanish/English legal dictionaries for reference, several
bilingual dictionaries for circulation, a computer dedicated to
multicultural information including a Spanish/English dictionary
on CD- Rom, downloaded websites with directories of addresses for
Spanish speaking individuals, and published a list of Spanish titles
in the library.
MCEL also used LSTA funds to purchase large print
books, close caption televisions for deaf inmates, audio books,
videotapes, and listening devices. Inmates with visual impairment
may get appropriate materials and equipment from the Library for
the Blind and Physically Handicapped, as part of Maryland State
Library Resource Center.
Although The Standards recommend minimum
staffing based on size of the inmate population, many libraries
are understaffed, functioning with a one-person manager. This manager
has the sole responsibility for all aspects of the library operations.
Areas of operation may include collection management, reader’s
advisory, reference questions, Internet searches, hiring, training,
supervising inmate workers, and working daily with security to ensure
inmates get permission to visit the library. Each library employs
inmate workers who assist in all areas of the library processing,
circulation, reference etc. Librarians, however, must be constantly
vigilant as inmate workers, though very helpful, by the very nature
of the prison culture, are likely to engage in manipulative games,
some of which may compromise security.[Fn7]
In cases where there is no budget for substitute staff, the libraries
close when the librarian takes leave.
Each year, MCEL produces an online Directory
of State Prison Librarians from a questionnaire sent to each
The directory lists the name, qualification, address, and employing
authority. Prison libraries may be staffed by librarians with a
degree in Library Science or an undergraduate degree, or by technicians
under the supervision of an off site professional librarian. The
libraries and education departments may be under the jurisdiction
of the Division of Correction (DOC), or they may exist through the
collaborative efforts of the DOC, and other agencies. For example,
the Maryland State Department of Education employs MCEL librarians,
but that agency receives a subvention from the Maryland’s
DOC to implement most of the library programs. In this case, funding
includes an off site online legal database service that serves to
provide inmates with access to the courts. While this writer is
aware that private contractors operate a number of prisons, none
of the librarians responding to the survey indicated private contractors
Inmates’ access to the library varies by institutions,
with some libraries operating day and evening hours, seven days
a week, to any inmate who is on recreation, while others have limited
hours and more controlled access. Librarians must also deliver services
to inmates who are segregated from the general population either
for protection or because of institutional infractions. Inmates
on segregated status receive library services by writing requests
using the in house institution mail, or if the institution allows
inmate clerks in the cell blocks, they collect and deliver services
at scheduled times. Services to segregated units are challenging
for librarians because the correctional staff are often lackadaisical
or whimsical in their manner or support of the service provider.
Physical access to the library, especially during
summer months, is sometimes hindered by institution lockdowns, when
there is no inmate movement on the compound. If the duration of
the lockdown is more than one week, the librarian answers and delivers
information requests through the institution mail.
Although The Standards assert Prisoners
right to read, and non-censorship except for obvious security and
pornographic issues, many librarians face intense and often unwarranted
scrutiny by prison security staff who tries to impose restrictions
on certain library materials. Seasoned Librarians, using the Library
Bill of Rights and established guidelines constantly challenge attempts
at censorship, but others admit to abiding by the strictures of
the DOC. In a recent discussion list, one librarian shared the challenge
of balancing her job as a librarian with security issues. Her collection
included the very popular Manga series, but with the recent addition
of a sex offender unit, the institution was concerned these may
have negative effect on the treatment of the sex offenders.[Fn9]
The present political climate highly favors providing funds for
faith-based prison programs and states, vying for these funds, have
actually implemented faith based prison programs.[Fn10]
To date no librarian has reported any
impact on their collection as a result of this faith based initiatives.
Prisoners have access to computers with application,
legal, and educational software but they do not have access to the
Internet. This means a prisoner with a long incarceration period,
who is returning to the community, will be at a disadvantage in
seeking and retrieving information for his or her survival. In 2002,
MCEL developed a CD-Rom tutorial that simulated the Internet, to
teach inmates how to use the Internet.[Fn11]
This CD-Rom highlights the job, and housing information that the
inmate will need on reentry to the community. It has been requested
by several states and is now used in those prisons, juvenile, and
youth centers across the United States.
Prison librarians report they have computers with
Internet access, but these computers must be kept in an area, inaccessible
to inmates. Inmate’s requests for information that is available
on the Internet must be submitted and delivered at a future time.
Prison librarians work as one person managers
in isolation from their other library counterparts and without the
daily camaraderie and support enjoyed by public and academic librarians.
For this article, this writer sent an on line questionnaire to public
and prison library listservs, inquiring about service to disadvantaged
groups to investigate collaborations.[Fn12]
The Office of Literacy and Outreach Services of the American Library
Association suggested that the term „underserved” or
„unserved” be substituted for „disadvantaged”,
because the latter often refers to poor people. Libraries, they
say, provide services to people who may not be poor or even at risk,
but who are merely limited in their information access due to the
absence of technology, disabilities, or even the level of resources,
financial or otherwise. Although prisoners fit the category of underserved,
they did not feature very much in the responses.
Public librarians considered their disadvantaged
user groups as residents living in assisted living facilities’:
the elderly, the homebound, new immigrants who have limited English
skills, children with learning disabilities, persons with disabilities,
patients in Community health care centers, and participants in Literacy
programs. Of the 21 respondents, eight donate their discarded books
to the jails and detention centers, one library makes regular stops
to Youth Centers as part of an arrangement with the court, and another
visits a Youth Center as part of the services under their Youth
and Adult Services Division. Youth Centers are the areas where public
libraries seem to provide greatest service while jails and detention
centers receive marginal services.[Fn13]
Prisons and prison libraries did not feature as a part of their
constituents. Prison librarians confirmed that they receive discarded
or left overs from book sales, and materials on Interlibrary Loan.
Recognizing the benefits prison libraries could gain
from partnerships with public libraries, in 2003, MCEL initiated
a program where incarcerated adults read to and with their children
and soliciting the help of the Enoch Pratt Public Library (EPFL).
The children’s librarians visited the prison, taught the men
how to identify and read appropriate materials to their children,
and how to do story telling. There is now an ongoing partnership
between MCEL and EPFL. The library provides the prison with a 6-week
deposit of children’s book and makes special arrangements
for the children of prisoners to participate in the summer reading
game. Other partnership efforts between MCEL and EPFL have been
joint presentations at library conferences, one being a presentation
entitled „Has your Public Librarian been to Prison?”
MCEL has also invited Public librarians to do book discussions with
the prison librarians at workshops, one session e.g. was called
„Beyond the Bestseller: Alternative Suggestions for Your Patrons.”
Maryland’s prison librarian also participates in the training
opportunities offered by the State Library Resource Center located
at the EPFL.
Prison Library Network
How does the one person prison library manager
keep current with prison library trend or trend in libraries generally?
If there is a budget, they participate in state library conferences,
special library conferences and workshops, or if they forge relationships
with public libraries in their communities, they can participate
as those libraries allow. MCEL librarians meet quarterly at different
venues, and there are guest speakers from different libraries.
At the coordinator administrative level, prison librarians get together
at the American Library Association’s annual and mid winter
conferences where the Prisoners Forum is a part of the Library Services
to Special Populations section of ASCLA.[Fn14]
The Prison library Listserv is an extremely important tool for networking.
Librarians share stories, pose questions, and offer solutions. It
is a helpful tool for librarians new to the prison environment and
for library school students who are interested or writing papers
on prison librarianship. Another forum for prison librarians is
OLOS. On this web site all the libraries that provide services to
underserved population are listed. [Fn15]
Prison library services vary from state to state and
from prison to prison as librarians struggle to balance their role
as information providers in environments committed to security.
Generally, prison librarians operate as community libraries providing
collection and services that meet the information, recreation, educational,
self help and reentry needs of prisoners whose information needs
and reading interests are similar to those of citizens on the outside.
[websites read 17.07.06]
Allen, Bud; Bosta, Diana (1981) Games Criminals
Play: How You Can Profit by Knowing Them. Sacramento: Rae John Publishers
American Library Association. Association of Specialized
and Cooperative Library Agencies Chicago (1992) Library Standards
for Adult Correctional Institutions
American Library Association, Association of Specialized
and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA), www.ala.org/ala/ascla/ascla.htm
American Library Association, Literacy and Outreach
Directory of State Prison Librarians,
Florida DOC to Establish First Faith-Based Prison.
In: Corrections Journal December 22, 2003, p. 3
Institute of Museum and Library Services, www.imls.gov/about/about.shtm
New York Public Library, Internet Resources of Use
to (Ex-) Inmates, www.nypl.org/branch/services/correctional.html
Shirley, Glennor (2003) Correctional Education,
Library Standards, and Diversity. In: Journal of Correctional Education,
Special Edition. Diversity Issues in Correctional Education, Vol.
54, Issue 2, pp. 70-74
(Initiated and scripted
by) Shirley, Glennor (2002) MSDE Discovering the Internet@your
library. Interactive CD-Rom featuring employment, housing, consumer
information, library web sites
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/crimoff.htm
see American Library Association. Association of Specialized and
Cooperative Library Agencies Chicago (1992) Library Standards for
Adult Correctional Institution. (zurück)
Bounds vs. Smith. 430 U.S. 817 (1977).
Lewis vs. Casey 15. F3d 1463 (1994). (zurück)
[read 06.05.06] . (zurück)
Shirley, Glennor (2003) Correctional Education, Library Standards,
and Diversity. In: Journal of Correctional Education, Special Edition.
Diversity Issues in Correctional Education, Vol. 54, Issue 2, pp.
Allen, Bud; Bosta, Diana (1981)
Games Criminals Play: How You Can Profit by Knowing Them. Sacramento:
Rae John Publishers. (zurück)
Directory of State Prison Librarians, http://ce.msde.state.md.us/library/Directory04/directory04.htm.
Prison Library Listserv. Prisonfirstname.lastname@example.org. June 17, 2006. (zurück)
Florida DOC to Establish First Faith-Based
Prison. In: Corrections Journal December 22, 2003. p. 3. (zurück)
(Initiated and scripted by) Shirley,
Glennor (2002) MSDE Discovering the Internet@ your library. Interactive
CD-Rom featuring employment, housing, consumer information, library
web sites. (zurück)
Questionnaire in May 2006 to Pubprgms@ala.org, Prisonemail@example.com.
de la Pena McCook, Kathleen (2004)
Public Libraries and People in Jail. In: Reference and User Services
Quarterly, Vol. 44, pp. 26-31. (zurück)
see ASCLA, www.ala.org/ala/ascla/ascla.htm
see Literacy and Outreach