Services for the Imprisoned

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Success Stories

  • The Palm Beach County Library System in Florida has been providing outreach to local jails and stockades since about 1998. PBCLS donates discarded paperbacks and magazines for prisoners. They also have a rotating deposit collection of approximately 3000 young adult paperbacks which they distribute to local juvenile stockades (W. Reimsnyder, personal communication, November 25, 2008).
  • Books Without Barriers is a collaboration between the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, and the local county sheriff's department. Librarians talk to inmates about children's literature, then videotape them reading a book and mail the video to their children (Arnold, 2006).
  • The Alternatives Library Books in Prison project focuses on poetry workshops. The poems written by residents at the MacCormick Secure Center near Ithaca, New York, are compiled in books (Andersen, 2003).
  • The Bucks County, Pennsylvania, prison library partners with the local Lions Club to create Braille reading material for the blind, produced by inmates (Geary, 2003).
  • Through the Indiana State Library's Read-To-Me program, inmates can record themselves reading books and mail the video to their children (Albertson, 2001).

Tips for Providing Quality Services to those in Prison

Types of Services

Being a prison librarian is not the only way to provide service to the incarcerated. Public librarians can provide outreach services to those held in county jails, stockades or juvenile detention centers (McCook, 2004). Public librarians can help prisoners connect with their children with book discussions or story times (Greenway, 2004). They can also provide services to those who have been released from prison, in order to ease their transition back into society (Dowling, 2007).

Preparing for a Career as a Prison Librarian

Beyond the typical Masters in Library Science requirements for any librarian, it is helpful to focus on "outreach services, multicultural resources, legal collections, and materials for the learning disabled" (Lehmann, 2000). Personal characteristics are just as important as academic qualifications. A prison librarian must have "flexibility, patience, emotional stability, a high tolerance for stress, and a sense of humor" (Lehmann, 2000). Inmates most appreciate librarians who demonstrate "straight-forwardness, firmness, fairness, and most of all consistency" (Greenway, 2007).

Prison librarians may be required to undergo extensive training alongside regular prison staff and learn how to search inmates and cells, cuff inmates, and so on (Jahnke, 2006). Though the thought of undergoing this training may be alarming, surveys from prison librarians generally reveal that safety is not a major concern. Surrounded by guards and alarm systems, there is no need to be over-anxious. Besides, "the library is one privilege no [inmate] wants to risk losing" by causing too many problems, one prison librarian pointed out (Geary, 2003). Prison librarian Stephanie Thorson goes so far as to say "I feel safer in prison than I do walking down the streets sometimes" (Dixen, 2001).


Many members of the public feel that those who are in prison are there to be punished, not to be rehabilitated. They may see library services as a privilege which prisoners do not deserve, rather than a valuable rehabilitative service. Some may argue that the use of taxpayer dollars to fund prison libraries or prison outreach is a waste of money. A review of professional literature and an examination of local statistics can show the public that housing prisoners is expensive and the rate of recidivism (released prisoners who return to jail) is high. Even from a purely financial point of view, "education and rehabilitation of offenders prevents recidivism and saves taxpayers money in the long run" (Lehmann, 2003).

It is important to be vocal in advocacy for prison libraries. When it comes time to cut funding, the negative public attitude towards perceived "perks" make cutting funding easier for lawmakers. When Arizona decided to close all its prison law libraries except for one, "the librarians were universally distressed but were not consulted" (Geary, 2003). If librarians are vocal about their support and passion for prison library services, lawmakers are more likely to learn that budgets for these important services cannot be cut without a fight.

There are many ways to advocate for library services to the incarcerated: contacting politicians and legislators, forming special interest groups on prison services, submitting grant proposals for library programs and services for those in prison, and more (Lehmann, 2003).

Collection Development

A prison library collection is very similar to a typical public library collection in many ways, and should contain a wide variety of popular and educational materials. The following subjects and materials should receive special attention, however:

  • Education, such as GED preparation (Reese, 2007)
  • Spanish language materials
  • Suicide
  • Drug addiction/revovery
  • Sexual abuse
  • Parenting skills
  • Health information (in English and Spanish)
  • Materials for the elderly, especially regarding healthcare
  • Legal materials (Greenway, 2007).

"Health information, information for non-English speakers, and parenting information are three of the most important emerging information needs within today's prisons" (Greenway, 2007).

NOTE: make sure that information is available "on the level at which the individual can understand it" and "in a variety of formats, so that it is accessible for those with varying needs and disabilities" (Greenway, 2007).

Prison librarians must be especially careful to provide legal information but no interpretation of the information. "Prisoners are supposed to have access to public defenders who can assist them with interpreting laws or cases" (Dixen, 2001).


Prison librarians must deal with issues of censorship far more frequently than public librarians. Free flow of information can be usurped by laws which restrict that right for prisoners (Geary, 2003). Prison librarians may find themselves fighting for their patrons' rights to certain popular materials even though the public may deem them too violent or explicitly sexual for the prisoners. Generally, these types of materials are prohibited: "materials that would aid in escape or criminal behavior; materials with instructions on making explosives, weapons, or alcohol; materials containing explicit or deviant sex; and materials promoting hatred or violence against certain groups" (Greenway, 2007).

Sometimes it feels as if a librarian's beliefs--that "everyone has the right to information and the right to confidentiality"--is counter to other prison staff's beliefs concerning prisoners (Jahnke, 2006). Fighting the battle against censorship may be much more difficult for the prison librarian than it is for other librarians.


Both prison librarians and public librarians can come up with creative ways to partner with other community agencies in order to provide programming, transportation and funding for the incarcerated (Dowling, 2007).

Public and prison librarians can do book talks for inmates, selecting books which may appeal to inmates, discussing them, then making them available for borrowing (Geary, 2003).

Partnering with local literacy organizations may be very fruitful, as many prisoners lack basic literacy skills and need materials and tutoring to help them improve (Greenway, 2007).

Public libraries can be especially helpful to recently released inmates who may lack computer skills. By law, internet access is denied or restricted to most inmates, so released prisoners may find themselves unqualified for jobs which require competent navigation of the internet. Libraries can provide classes and training which teach basic internet skills (Dowling, 2007).

Running a Prison Library

Prison libraries must have an open design which allows the librarian to have a clear line of sight which allows him/her to observe all patrons at all times (Reese, 2007).

Staff should strive to create an atmosphere which is "welcoming, neutral and secure" and to "provide secure places where people who have lost their freedom are still entitled to intellectual freedom" (Jahnke, 2007). Librarians must serve all, "regardless of sentence, security designation, or placement in the institution" (Reese, 2007).

Qualified inmates can provide invaluable clerical assistance, allowing the librarian more time to spend on professional duties. This responsibility benefits the inmates as well, often instilling in them a sense of pride and purpose (Greenway, 2007).

Librarians may need to be especially vocal in their requests for adequate space for prison librarians, and the separation of professional duties and security issues. "Librarians should be involved as little as possible in security initiatives" (Singer, 2000). Advocacy of prison librarianship as a professional career (instead of something which can be done using only clerical staff) should be a strong focus as well (Geary, 2003).

Dealing with Difficulties

Though some may think working with prisoners would be the most difficult aspect of this job, many prison librarians say it is working with other prison staff which is most difficult. Transporting prisoners to and from the library can be tedious and arduous and some prison staff do not understand why inmates cannot be given a paper copy of the library's holdings, select books and have them delivered to their cells (Jahnke, 2006).

Prison librarians must remember that at any moment their routine may be interrupted by a security breach. Inside a prison, the need for security outweighs any other need, and there is "always a potential for violence in the library" (Greenway, 2007). Theft and damage of popular materials is a major problem in many prison libraries, so these materials may need to be monitored more carefully for damage and replaced more frequently (Greewnway, 2007).

Blogs/Websites to Watch

  • ALA Prison Libraries interface
  • ASCLA Library Services to Prisoners forum
  • Institutional Library Services blog
  • Prison Librarian blog
  • Exploring Prison Librarianship
  • Prison Library listserv

Specific Blog Posts/Articles/Books to Check Out

  • Clark, S. & MacCreigh, E. (2006). Library services to the incarcerated: applying the public library model in correctional facility libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Greenway, S. (2007). Library services behind bars. Bookmobile and Outreach Services, 10(2), 43-64.

This article is full of great statistics and a huge list of references. If you are writing a grant to provide prison services, this would be a good starting point.

  • Lehmann, V. (2003). Planning and implementing prison libraries: Strategies and resources. IFLA Journal, 29(4), 301-7.

For an international perspective on prison services in libraries, check out this article and its extensive list of works cited.

  • Lehmann, V. (2000). Prison librarians needed: A challenging career for those with the right professional and human skills. IFLA Journal, 26(2), 123-8.

If you are considering a career as a prison librarian, this article gives advice about personality traits, coursework, dealing with prison staff and more.

  • Resolution on Prisoners' Right to Read (1992)
  • Rubin, R., & Suvak, D. (1995). Libraries inside: A practical guide for prison librarians. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Articles from prison librarians and helpful appendices such as a sample collection development policy.

  • Vogel, B. (1995). Down for the count: A prison library handbook. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

A standard textbook for prison librarians. Full of good advice for dealing with difficult people and situations.

   Vogel, B. (2009). "The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century." Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

The library as the major source for successful reentry.

Works Cited

Albertson, M. (2001). A second chance for a family's survival: The Indiana State Library's Read-To-Me program. Indiana Libraries, 20(2), 27-8.

Andersen, L. (2003). Expanding our work with prisoners. Progressive Librarian, 22, 62-4.

Arnold, R., & Colburn, N. (2006). From a distance. School Library Journal, 52(9), 32.

Dixen, R., & Thorson, S. (2001). How librarians serve people in prison. Computers in Libraries, 21(9), 48-53.

Dowling, B. (2007). Public libraries and the ex-offender. Public Libraries, 46(6), 44-8.

Geary, M. (2003). Trends in prison library services. Bookmobiles and Outreach Services, 6(1), 79-90.

Greenway, Sandra. (2007). Library services behind bars. Bookmobile and Outreach Services, 10(2), 43-64.

Jahnke, E. (2006). Institutional library services: Where positive change takes place. PNLA Quarterly, 71(1), 17-20.

Jahnke, E. (2007). Prison libraries guard intellectual freedom. Alki, 23(3), 15-23.

Lehmann, V. (2003). Planning and implementing prison libraries: Strategies and resources. IFLA Journal, 29(4), 301-7.

Lehmann, V. (2000). Prison librarians needed: A challenging career for those with the right professional and human skills. IFLA Journal, 26(2), 123-8.

McCook, K. (2004). Public libraries and people in jail. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44(1), 26-30.

Reese, D., & Austin, B. (2007). Standards in Colorado correctional libraries: Uniting service and security. Colorado Libraries, 33(1), 26-9.

Singer, G. (2000). Prison libraries inside out. Education Libraries, 24(1), 11-16.