Library Services in Correctional Settings: Although the Work Environment Is Challenging, Correctional Settings Offer Librarians an Opportunity to Make a Profound Difference in People's Lives

By Marshall, Aileen M. J. | Information Outlook, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Library Services in Correctional Settings: Although the Work Environment Is Challenging, Correctional Settings Offer Librarians an Opportunity to Make a Profound Difference in People's Lives


Marshall, Aileen M. J., Information Outlook


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. …

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