Academic journal article Genders

Incarceration and the "Freedom to Read": How Prison Libraries Function as Instruments of State Power

Academic journal article Genders

Incarceration and the "Freedom to Read": How Prison Libraries Function as Instruments of State Power

Article excerpt

Introduction

[1] Since their inception in 1790, prison libraries and literacy programs have been scrutinized and studied in order to gauge their potential usefulness in the rehabilitation of the incarcerated (Rubin, 3). A large body of literature, overwhelmingly consisting of personal accounts and analyses from librarians, and the occasional inmate, has been produced discussing these programs and institutions. The narrative of the prison library extends beyond memoirs and research. Many novels, films, and television shows which have prison as their setting or focus will include scenes or storylines within the prison library. The image of the reading prisoner is part of the American national psyche and with very few exceptions the narrative surrounding the prison library--be it fictional or nonfictional--is overwhelmingly supportive of these services. Besides routine lamentations about lack of funding or frustration over the occasional administrative roadblock, the majority of accounts are profuse in their praise of the prison library as beneficial to inmate growth and rehabilitation.

[2] The oft-stated positive characteristics of these programs are manifold. They offer opportunities for prisoners to gain knowledge and further their education. Book programs and libraries are often connected with education classes and vocational trainings in which inmates can learn skills that will be useful upon release. Outside of the prison walls, these individuals may not have had the opportunity to focus on education and literacy but during a period of incarceration they may be able to spend concentrated periods of time with library staff and volunteer educators. Access to books can also be seen as a way for prisoners to have leisure time and moments of freedom from the otherwise violent or oppressive life of an inmate. The relief these types of programs offer inmates is lauded as beneficial and perhaps even necessary to the survival of the individual within the prison system. Inmates themselves are often the most vocal advocates for access to reading materials while incarcerated and the most adamant protesters when these materials are removed, often taking part in lawsuits--with varying success--against prison institutions that try to restrict this access (Sweeney, 20). Literature "frees" the mind, conceivably making the fact that the body is oppressively contained somewhat more bearable.

[3] Considering these myriad potentially positive aspects of institutional libraries, educational programs geared towards inmates, and prison book programs/book groups, it is easy to assume that creating these types of programs and supporting them once they are in place is an important and necessary way for the government to support a population of its citizenry who are among the most at risk. Yet this idea becomes more complex when one recognizes that the prison system is one of the many influential tools of State power. Although organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA) have created guidelines for libraries within correctional facilities, these libraries are not in fact under the sole jurisdiction of librarians or any public library association. "Library facilities, library collections, and library services in the federal prison system fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice. Each of the fifty states has its own department of corrections (or similarly named agency) with responsibility for the state correctional facilities and libraries" (Lehmann, 490). Everyone, and everything, within the prison system is controlled by the State. Libraries and book programs within this system are there only because the State allows them to be and this beneficence comes at a high price.

[4] This price most often presents itself in the form of censorship. Prison administrations, as well as local governments, frequently censor the types of books available to inmates. …

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