Libraries exist to serve their communities. Said communities should include those who are traditionally looked at and treated as outsiders; people who are incarcerated. The time inmates spend in jail is not a pleasant one for many reasons, the lack of access to information and education being one of them. But that is something that can be addressed by prison libraries.

While this post is talking about prison libraries specifically, most things mentioned below apply to other facilities, like mental health and rehabilitation institutions too. With this little disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about the importance of these libraries.

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Inmates who are locked out

First things first, when reading the word ‘prisoner’ one may immediately think of a serial killer with multiple homicide charges, locked up for the rest of their lives. However, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, very few people are incarcerated for crimes like that. The overwhelming majority (over 45%) of inmates are imprisoned over charges related to drug offenses, such as possession or consumption (granted, the second most common reason is offenses related to weapons, explosives, and arson).

Former prisoners often have a hard time finding jobs after their release. According to this study based on 50000 American people, 33% of them did not get employed in the 4 years after their release, and even for those who did find a job, they had an average of 3.4 jobs over the same period of time. There are many reasons for this, the obvious one being the stigma that a criminal record carries. But some of the less obvious reasons include falling behind or never having access to modern technology and being stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.

And this happens more often than one may think. Imagine this if you will; it’s May of 2007, you are a young person from a disadvantaged socio-economic background (which many prisoners have). You get imprisoned for the next 10 years, and you have no access to technology, information, or education. You are released in 2017, and everybody is running around with a laptop, smartphones and tablets, everything is being digitized, while you are just standing there, not even knowing what an iPhone is, let alone how to operate one. It’s tough to find your place in society now that you feel like a complete outsider.

And this is exactly where prison libraries enter the frame.

Facilities to rehabilitate, not to alienate

Prisons are penal rehabilitation facilities – and those words are equally important. If you just punish people, but don’t provide them with the opportunity to learn skills that are required in everyday life then the likelihood of these people returning to prison increases.

Teaching inmates basic skills, so they don’t fall behind is crucial for them to succeed later in life. They don’t need to be taught how to hack into the prison’s network (this has actually happened, though the inmates weren’t taught how to do this by the staff), but they should be comfortable finding reliable information online.

Prison libraries should provide simple books and magazines on self-help, or ones that develop a hobby, like cooking, crocheting, or gardening. Keeping a few comic books may come in handy as well, so juvenile detainees can find superheroes and idols to look up to. Poetry or writing classes can be useful for many inmates as well.

As finding a job as an ex-prisoner is tough, many try to establish their own businesses once released. Hence, these libraries should try to offer books that teach inmates about how to run a business, from how to create a business plan, to how to market their businesses, some sales practices to adopt, and so forth. As a percentage of the libraries’ patrons will be lacking education and/or technical skills, it’s likely that they will also be financially illiterate, or at least lack some knowledge. Keeping this in mind, offering books on how to keep track of personal and business finances and teaching inmates how to file tax returns for example would be a great initiative too.

Many internationally recognized institutions, like Harvard University, offer free online courses, so with proper organization, and a secure network, libraries could offer inmates these courses as well.

The above are just a few examples and ideas to implement. Prison libraries tend to have a tight budget, as the prison usually has other expenses to address. This means that as the librarian you may need to keep endlessly messaging your state for more funds, or that donations from local bookstores, public libraries, and charity organizations are going to be necessary to keep the library’s materials up to date.

Running a prison library, while important, is far from easy, as some may tell you. Luckily, there are many organizations that care, and can provide plenty of resources and tips to help you.

A secure community

There are plenty of resources and groups dedicated to helping prison librarians. Below are just a few of these:

  • UNESCO’s Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries written by Lisa Krolak (LINK)
  • ALA’s resources for prison librarians (LINK)
  • The IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries (LINK) and the IFLA Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners (LINK)
  • This document presented at the World Library and Information Congress: 69th IFLA General Conference and Council on Planning and Implementing Prison Libraries: Strategies and Resources (LINK)
  • CILIP’s own Prison Libraries Group (LINK)
  • Library Success’ own best practices on the Services for the Imprisoned (LINK)

Working at a prison library may sound like a daunting task – and it can be one. The environment can be stressful, the schedule can be packed, and both the resources and funding can be low. However, it is also an extremely rewarding job, helping people when they need it the most.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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Robert Kolosa

Robert is a content writer for the Princh Library Blog. Princh, which is a printing solution designed specifically for and with public libraries, makes a consistent effort to provide advocacy for libraries and library professionals. The Princh blog discusses library specific topics that inform its readers of library trends, insights, technologies and more.

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