Some Words on Prison Libraries

Updated on June 16, 2020
wpcooper profile image

Fin lives in the Central Valley, where he is a student at CSUB. He writes in his free time and is interested in social issues and travel.

Libraries Are Still the Fabric of a Free Society

Libraries are still an institution essential to a free society—even if you are in the confines of the prison environment. Correctional facilities are microcosms of the "outside world;" they are little cities upon themselves.

Most people's perceptions of prison come from what they hear on the street or from Hollywood, and in most cases, there is a great deal of hyperbole involved in those narratives. Residents of correctional facilities however, manage to survive. The human psyche is adept and many people have survived situations of confinement and despair.

Work Often Means Dealing With Other People

Libraries in Prisons (and the Real World) Represent Freedom

You've probably heard it said many different ways: books set us free. In the confines of community where borders are defined by steel bars, barbed wire lined fences, and cement walls, the library is a place where inmates can find solace and a means to connect with a more comfortable world. This is no different for the leisure reader who visits the public library to discover pleasure through books or periodical literature in their city center.

Prisons in California are all required by the Title 15 - the state rules that regulate how correctional facilities are to operate - to have libraries available to the inmates. Article 3, Section 3120 states "Each warden shall ensure a library, law library and related services are maintained for the benefit of all inmates in their facility...". Libraries are designed to provide access to the courts - inmates are permitted legal research and copy assistance as well as literature that supports education and recreational reading.

Many Prison Libraries Resemble Those Found in the Public Sector

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Reader's Poll

How often do you use a library?

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Many patrons in the prison library will use their time to pursue their cases. Libraries have access to case law, codes and a wide variety of research materials that help them create petitions, file appeals or verify the validity of a decision that has been made. They may need access to court forms or pleading papers to help prepare their filings or may require multiple copies of a case so they can provide the proper offices with their legal materials.

Other readers in the library will choose to read newspapers and periodicals. Because sensitive information can be found in city newspapers, most prisons will subscribe to titles such as the New York Times or USA Today. In California, the Daily Journal - a law based newspaper and the Daily Appellate Report (DAR) are readily available. The DAR publishes cases from the courts of appeal in the state. Often these cases will provide support for a library user who may be interested in finding support for a case they are working on.

Magazines are popular as well and the reading levels of the patrons vary from the popular gossip magazines such as People and US Weekly to the more scholarly and professional publications such as The Economist and Forbes. One does not have to be intellectually challenged in order to find oneself incarcerated. Perhaps it is just bad luck. Many readers are seeking a way to connect with a world they may have been familiar with - the business man who finds himself being punished for an infraction received while operating a motor vehicle under the influence - as well as the students who are seeking to find a new life in the business community upon reentry.

Newsprint and Periodical Literature are Popular Titles

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titles like the Economist provide current informationMany like to know what is happening in HollywoodA publication of sorts
titles like the Economist provide current information
titles like the Economist provide current information
Many like to know what is happening in Hollywood
Many like to know what is happening in Hollywood
A publication of sorts
A publication of sorts

What is your literature of choice?

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Libraries Are Sacrosanct

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the rotunda of this library is reminiscent of the architecture of some federal penitentiaries
the rotunda of this library is reminiscent of the architecture of some federal penitentiaries
the rotunda of this library is reminiscent of the architecture of some federal penitentiaries

Books Are Positive Distractions and Safe Escapes

One of the things that should be kept in mind is that the prison is often an environment of monotony, deprivation and frustration - perhaps the outside world can be that way as well. In the prison however, these feelings of isolation are greatly magnified and while inmates have been relocated to a prison complex for certain reasons, their removal from society should be just punishment. There is no reason to torture persons further and put dampers upon their intellectual growth, or impose any deep irreparable psychological damages. The point of a correctional facility is to create an environment of rehabilitation and give the individual the impetus to change. Libraries are the appropriate catalyst for this: they provide the individual with the chance to explore intellectual channels and engage in introspection.

Books and other literature are ideal options to offer as distractions to other behaviors which might be destructive to the staff or residents of the facility. Self-help books and titles on subjects that support education programs give the learner a chance to grow intellectually and perhaps discover skills that are suitable for a profession upon release. Leisure fiction is engaging mentally and emotionally and provides readers a reprieve from the daily routine of prison life and can make idle time pass by with a certain level of momentary pleasure. Libraries are multi-faceted in this respect regardless of the environment, but in an institution that has little else to offer, libraries represent a sanctuary.

Libraries Open up the Mind to Unique Worlds

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Do prisoners have the right to books and libraries?

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For Some People, This is Their World

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the sunset over a barbed wire fenceguard tower and inmates in recreationthe outskirts of a prisona single person cell (most cells have two beds)
the sunset over a barbed wire fence
the sunset over a barbed wire fence
guard tower and inmates in recreation
guard tower and inmates in recreation
the outskirts of a prison
the outskirts of a prison
a single person cell (most cells have two beds)
a single person cell (most cells have two beds)

A Few Statements on the Right to Read

You probably all realize the importance of books and literature to any society and one of the reasons you are reading this article is probably because of that fact. You are someone who appreciates books and libraries yourself and you may even be an author in some respect. You may or not be an advocate for social change or someone who believes in the rights of marginalized populations. Many people who find themselves incarcerated have come from areas of economic disparity or perhaps been abused or lived in social circles where negative behaviors were rewarded and people who tried to make positive decisions were shunned.

Certainly we have all experienced times in our lives when we felt we were treated unfairly or sometimes circumstances occurred that blurred our positive outlook on life. Not all of us have resorted to criminal behaviors in order to solve our momentary glitches. Many of us - if we are reading this article - have the benefit of modern comforts - or at least access to them. We are in a place that is well lit and has access to electricity and if that is so, probably the conveniences of modern life. That is not to say that there is justification for anti social behavior. There should be consequences for persons who choose to ignore that standards and regulations we develop in order to maintain a peaceful society.

People should have the right though to try and make positive changes. We don't live in the medieval period where we torture people and we don't live in third world countries where punishments are harsh, permanent and final. In the United States, we give people the opportunity to reflect upon their poorly made decisions and give them an opportunity to find redemption. The earliest prisons in America were based upon that model and although there has been much reform over the decades since Eastern State, the purpose of punishment has not changed that much.

Some Images of the Past

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Eastern had the spoke architecturean early prison yardsome prisoners were kept on chain gangs and treated like slaves
Eastern had the spoke architecture
Eastern had the spoke architecture
an early prison yard
an early prison yard
some prisoners were kept on chain gangs and treated like slaves
some prisoners were kept on chain gangs and treated like slaves

Have you ever been to a house of incarceration?

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While many of the basic human rights are taken away from the prisoner, one of them should not be the right to access literature. It is certainly horrific enough for one to have the physical body experience various forms of deprivation, but to hold the mind captive is torture. Many great writers emerged while incarcerated: Dostoyevsky wrote while incarcerated, Don Quixote, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King. For some writers, prison had become an inspiration.

Every human being deserves the basic rights and amenities that are necessary for survival. While I don't believe we should spend tax dollars on creating luxurious type cells as they have in some European countries, I don't believe that inmates deserve to be tortured. Regardless of their infractions or behavior, it isn't the place of one of us to judge. We need to protect society from people who behave wrongly but those who are imprisoned deserve the right to rectify their earlier decisions.

Books and libraries are guaranteed by the California Code of Regulations, Title 15 and most US prisons are compatible with the California model. I encourage everyone to support the right of inmates to access reading materials and engage in higher learning. Perhaps you can donate some used books to a prison or even volunteer at a local facility. You don't even have to go into prison to help your community because there are places outside as well that need your support and assistance.

Of course, I hope you continue to read yourself.

Did this article provide any information or answer any questions you had?

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    • wpcooper profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Barstow

      Yes I would hope so Larry

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Prisons are an excellent tool for rehabilitation.


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