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Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, an office of the American Library Association

Library Outreach to Underserved Populations


Behind the Walls 

at your library

Library Service in Prisons

Column #3 - September 2004

By Glennor Shirley,

Library Coordinator, Maryland State Dept of Education, Correctional Education Libraries

What do Prisoners read?

Prison Libraries and Collection Development


What do prisoners read?  I am asked frequently.  Surprise often greets my response that prisoners read the same materials one would find in a local public library including titles on bestseller lists.

Prisons are total communities where all aspects of life are conducted in the same place.  Many correctional libraries serve as the community information centers, providing resources for self directed learning, information retrieval, recreational reading, and materials to help the inmate transition back to society.

Library services, staffing, and collections vary among states, the more successful programs being located   in correctional institutions where the administration is committed to successful reentry and actively supports educational and library programs.  Some states provide law libraries in order to satisfy the Supreme Court’s mandate of access to the courts; Bounds v.   Smith.[i]   Others provide separate law and recreational reading libraries. Many libraries like Maryland Correctional Educational Libraries operate on the model of public libraries, providing collection and services according to the standards established by the American Library Association, ASCLA.[ii]

Prisons are generally classified according to security levels- maximum, medium, minimum, and prerelease, maximum being the highest level of security.  Maximum security level prisoners do intense legal research, seeking sentence reduction.  Reference collection in these libraries is heavily weighted towards legal print and non print materials materials.   Core collections consist of encyclopedias, dictionaries, directories, handbooks, subject dictionaries, similar to the collections in a small community public library.

The nature of Total Institutions always results in a staff inmate split, where any member of staff has the right to discipline.  The library becomes the primary access point for inmates who seek information on rules when they perceive violations of their rights

When surveyed about content of their collection- librarians replied:[iii]

  • Small but well balanced collection, similar to a public library
  • Heavy use of homegrown newspapers
  • Prisoners love studying the human body
  • We cater to the GED program and the 2 year college program
  • General fiction, inspirational books, humor
  • Wide range of books that reflect the interest of all ethnic groups
  • Collection built around ethnic interest and reading levels.
  • Career oriented software

Top requests among non fiction category are: self help, writing business plans,  career,  true crime, biographies, psychology, African American Literature, United States history, sports, music, poetry, body building, health, religion, art, writing and publishing skills, materials on the trades.

Top requests among fiction are: horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy, action adventure, historical fiction, crime novels, military/war stories, mystery, westerns, and family drama.

Popular fiction authors include, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Donald Goines, Sydney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Stuart Woods, Jeffrey Deavers, John Grisham, Walter Mosley, all African American writers, all authors of Westerns.

While many libraries have a collection of the classical literature, these are not popular reading materials. In the survey several librarians mentioned censorship by the prison administration.   In libraries where the Prisoners’ right to read is not respected, the collection is a watered down version of prison- approved materials, rather than a collection based on the librarian’s assessment of interest.

All prison libraries have budget constraints; some libraries had no budget, but a collection based on donations.   Other libraries develop relationships with their local library systems and use inter library loans to enable wider access to materials.   Maryland Correctional Libraries is part of the state’s Inter Library Loan (ILL) and use the correctional library email network to request materials within the Maryland Correctional system.   Criteria must be set for the use of   ILL materials so library systems are not inundated with requests for high demand materials.

To ensure optimum use of its limited funds, it is important to develop materials selection and donations policies.  The latter is important because librarians frequently get offers from well meaning citizens who are cleaning out their basement after a family member’s death, or from lawyers who think it is a shame to toss the old law books that they no longer need. Sorting through donations is staff and time intensive and may not provide much to add to the collection.

Correctional Librarian needing guidance in material selection can read Vogel’s prison library handbook[iv]. Information can also be obtained from Maryland Correctional Education Library’s Web site.[v]

[i] Bounds V. Smith, 430 U.S.817 (1977)

[ii] American Library Association. ASCLA. Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions 1992

[iii] Internet survey conducted by Glennor Shirley, 2003

[iv] Vogel, Brenda. Down for the Count: a prison library handbook. Lanham, MD. The Scarecrow Press,  1995

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