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Why We Need Prison Libraries

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Finn is a clinician with a Master's in Social Work from CSU Bakersfield. He also has a Master's in Library Science.

Some prisons are required to have libraries.

Some prisons are required to have libraries.

Libraries Are Still the Fabric of a Free Society

Libraries are still an institution essential to a free society—even in the confines of the prison environment. Correctional facilities are microcosms of the "outside world." They are little cities in themselves, and like cities, they supply the needs of their population as best they can.

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 manage to survive. The human psyche is adept, and many people have survived situations of confinement and despair.

You've probably heard it said many different ways: Books set us free. In the confines of a 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. Like leisure readers on the outside, who visit the public library in their city center, inmates visit the library to discover pleasure through books or periodical literature.

Prisons Are Required to Have Libraries

Prisons in California are all required by Title 15 (the state rules that regulate the operation of correctional facilities) 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 not just recreational and educational reading but access to the courts: inmates are permitted legal research and copy assistance.

Many prison libraries resemble those found in the public sector.

Many prison libraries resemble those found in the public sector.


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 help a library user find 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. Bad luck happens to intelligent people too. Many readers are seeking a way to reconnect with a world they may have been familiar with, or find a new life in the business community upon reentry.

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

Prison is often an environment of monotony, deprivation, and frustration. Though the outside world can frustrating as well, in prison these feelings of isolation are greatly magnified. While inmates have been relocated to a prison complex for certain reasons, there is no reason to arbitrarily deprive and torture people, put dampers upon their intellectual growth, or impose psychological damage. 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 alternatives 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 pleasure. In an institution that has little else to offer, libraries represent a sanctuary.

The Right to Read

You realize the importance of books and literature to any society; that is one of the reasons you are reading this article. You appreciate books and libraries yourself and you may even be an author. 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 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 when circumstances erased our positive outlook on life, though not all of us resorted to criminal behaviors to solve these temporary problems.

By trying to understand anti-social behavior we are not trying to justify it. There should be consequences for persons who choose to ignore the standards and regulations we develop in order to maintain a peaceful society.

But people, including prisoners, should have the right to try to 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. Like the readers of this article, prisoners should have access to modern comforts like good lighting, electricity, and good reading. 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.

Why Hold the Mind Captive?

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 became 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 comparable policies in prisons elsewhere in the US. 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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.