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Libraries are provided in many prisons. Reading materials are provided in almost all federal and state correctional facilities in the United States. Libraries in federal prisons are controlled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice. State prison libraries are controlled by each state's own department of corrections.[1] Many local jails also provide library services through partnerships with local public libraries and community organizations.[1] These resources may be limited, mostly provided through government sources.[2]


Prison libraries serve both prisoners and the public by helping to educate prisoners, reduce recidivism, and improve family bonds through reading.

Research shows a correlation between education and reduced recidivism, and libraries play an important role in supporting education.[3] In fact, in some states, prisoners are sentenced to a literature discussion group in lieu of prison time. One such program, Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), has been operating since 1991. The first CLTL group in Massachusetts had a 19 percent recidivism rate as compared to 42 percent in a control group.[4] Education allows inmates to obtain the skills they need to transition back into society once they are released and libraries can play in an important role in helping inmates learn these skills. Some programs prison libraries offer include, GED instruction, literacy classes, life skills classes, typing instruction, and classes on how to use a library.[5]

In addition to educational opportunities, prison libraries help prisoners have positive and meaningful contact with family. For example, the Jessup Correctional Institute in Maryland started a program that provided books for prisoners to read to their children or grandchildren on visiting days.[6] Other prison libraries have programs in which prisoners are recorded reading stories, and the tapes and books, along with a coloring book and crayons, are sent to their child.[7] Some inmates try to read the same materials their children are reading, so they have something to talk about with them.[6]

Prison libraries provide a space for inmates to meet with others with common interests. Though funding is limited, some prison librarians are diligent in providing programming. Such programs include, book clubs and community service projects.[8] Many inmates utilize the library as a means of escape from the reality of their current situations. One of the many services provided by a prison librarian is to have conversation with the inmates regarding the reasons they are in their current situation, After which, the librarian will make catalog suggestions to the inmate that will give them guidance in future decision making.[8]


Funding and space are two major challenges for prison libraries.[9] Prison libraries are on the low end of budget priorities for prisons.[8] It is difficult to provide up-to-date information and classes with a limited budget and space. Associated with limited budgets are time constraints. Some prison library staff feel they do not have the time to complete all of the tasks they need to because prison libraries are under-staffed.[10] Interestingly, recent technological developments such as the choice to transition to tablet-based has led to prison elimination of law libraries in South Dakota and has threatened to end book donations to prisoners and their libraries in favor of charging prisoners for books available in e-book format.[11] Another challenge is the literacy of inmates. For example, in the United States, "seventy-five percent of the state prison population did not complete high school or are classified as low literate".[12] Other challenges include security risks. Some librarians feel like they are guards and other libraries are monitored by correctional officers.[13] Finally, some libraries have to deal with damage and theft of items.[13]

An interesting challenge in the development of prison libraries in the US came about in the Steven Hayes case, where library collection policies, and patron (prisoner privacy) came into question. It was suspected that Hayes' reading choices in his former prison "fueled his crimes".[14] The prosecutors in his case wanted to see Hayes' reading lists after he was convicted of the murder, kidnapping and sexual assault of members of the Petit family. This issue is contentious because according to normal library policies, patron privacy is a very serious matter, and the question of whether it changes within a prison library was highly debated. Conrad does not mention that any real rulings and/or concrete decisions have been reached as there are strong arguments both for maintaining prisoners' privacy, as with any other patron, and there are arguments for that privacy to be made available to ensure that there is no danger to the prisoner, prison population or general public.[14]

Censorship is another major challenge reported by prison libraries. The Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state that publication can only be rejected if they are found to be "detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity." However, prisons censor materials far beyond these guidelines.[15] Restrictions on the content of materials in prison libraries are imposed by prison authorities such as wardens, administrators, and security personnel, resulting in the infringement on prisoner's right to read.[16] "Both formal and informal processes of censorship occur in the prison, and there is significant variation in which materials are censored from one institution to the next."[17]

International institutions

United States

Library books, Guantanamo prison, 2011
Library books, Guantanamo prison, 2011

America has had prison libraries since 1790.[18] The first state prison library was established in 1802.[18] At the beginning of the 19th century prisons were usually operated by the clergy.[1] The purpose of the library was to increase religious devotion and modify behaviour. In many prisons during this time period the library collection consisted only of the Bible and sometimes prayer books.[19] According to Lehmann (2011), "The main purpose of reading was believed to be strengthening of character, religious devotion, and what we today would call behavior modification. By the mid-nineteenth century, penology (the study, theory, and practice of prison management and criminal rehabilitation) had become more scientific, and criminologists claimed that they knew the reasons for criminal behavior and, consequently, how to reform criminals."[1]

In 1870, during the Progressive Period and Prison Reform Movement, the Prison Congress began calling for rehabilitation of convicts instead of retribution, and education and rewards for good behaviour.[18] The library was seen as an incentive and only contained items which furthered the reformative goals of the prison.[1] The first manual for prison libraries was published by the American Library Association in 1915.[18]

During the Great Depression prison libraries were expanded.[18] With a decline in industrial demands prisoners became idle and restless and libraries were seen as a way to occupy them. In 1930, a manual for prison libraries was published by the American Correctional Association. The library was believed to be wholesome recreation, which also supported education and mental health, and there was great growth in federal prison libraries for the next four decades.[1]

State correctional facilities began to see growth in prison libraries in the 1970s when the Library Services and Construction Act was authorized by Congress. In 1974, two Massachusetts cases – Wolf v. McDonnell and Stone v. Boone – mandated that prisons provide on-site libraries, which paved the way for Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977).[20] Bounds v. Smith ruled that prisons were required to provide access to people trained in law or law library collections in order to meet the constitutional requirement of meaningful access to the courts. In 1996, Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), limited the requirement placed on correctional facilities. Following Lewis many libraries reduced their collections.[1]

Lewis v. Casey ruled that prisoners do not have an absolute right to a law library. Rather an inmate must show that he was unable to pursue a legal claim because of the inadequacy of the law library.[21] In other words, lack of an adequate law library caused the inmate actual injury. The ruling in Lewis makes it much more difficult to seek improvement to a prison's law library. As one court pointed out, the ability to litigate a claim of denial of access demonstrates that the inmate has no denial of access.[22] However, some believe that Lewis is not as devastating as it appears to be and Bounds v. Smith still remains good law.[citation needed] Post-9/11, prison library budgets were slashed.[23]

As of 2013 the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba has a library of some 18,000 books.[24] According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,505,400 Federal and State Prisoners in the United States.[25] The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world.[26]


The first prison library in Canada was formed in the 19th century.[27] In the 1980s, the Correctional Service of Canada commissioned two reports on institutional libraries throughout Canada, the analysis of which defined the role of prison libraries and made recommendations to support these roles.[28] However, many of the challenges identified in these reports still exist, but many improvements were made until drastic budget and staffing cutbacks were made in 1994.[29] While prison libraries are required to support all correctional programs, including education and access to legal and non-legal materials, they have not been spared budget cuts and are struggling to maintain existing programs.[29] Often funds are spent on materials rather than staff.[29]

However, progress has been made on publishing standards, and most institutional libraries have a procedures manual.[30] In addition, they have been able to establish a Regional Multi-Lingual Collection and a Regional Aboriginal Collection, in response to the diversity of people within the prison system.[31] Finally, some progress has been made in getting library staff back and all new hires are required to be certified library technicians.[29]

China, People's Republic of

In prisons dedicated towards common (non-political) prisoners, the right to access reading material is guaranteed, conditional upon good behaviour, including satisfactory performance in duties assigned.[32] During the Cultural Revolution, however, camps operated by the reform through labour program were not guaranteed reading materials beyond the works of Mao Zedong.[32]

England and Wales

Prisons are required by statute to have a library and permit all prisoners to access the library.[33] Unlike most countries, prison libraries in England and Wales are required to staff a professional librarian and there are minimum staffing requirements.[34] The vision of the prison libraries is to provide services similar to those of public libraries.[35] CILIP's Prison Library Group actively supports prison libraries in England and Wales through promotion, policy, advice, continuing education, networking, advocacy, mentoring, publishing, and involvement.[35] Between 2005 and 2008 prison libraries' funding almost doubled.[36] Prison libraries must meet required standards and are subject to inspection.[37]


France has had prison libraries since the mid-19th century.[38] They were established primarily through prison funds or donations made by prisoners.[39] Today, prison libraries are mandated by France's Criminal Procedure Code.[40] However, according to Cramard, these libraries vary in size, location, inmate access time, etc. In addition, while all prisons are required to have a library there is no requirement for them to have a librarian and many have partnered with local public libraries to meet their needs.[41]

"In order to introduce a larger audience to the institution libraries, the SPIP quickly took the initiative to develop a series of projects around books, literature, and writing."[42] Projects include regularly scheduled workshops, such as writing skills classes, reading groups, reading workshops, and storytelling workshops, and one-time events, such as meetings with writers and illustrators and writing workshops.[43] However, prison libraries are still a work-in-progress and the Prison Administration has declared that in 2008–2010 transforming prison libraries would be a priority.[44]


Prison libraries have existed in Germany since the 19th century and were run by the clergy.[45] The libraries contained religious materials from various denominations, which inmates were encouraged to read and discuss.[45] In the 20th century prison libraries were run by teachers.[45] It was not until professional librarians began operating inside prison libraries that they began to really develop;[45] however, not all German prison libraries employ a professional librarian.[45] The purpose of the prison library is to provide recreation, support education, and help with the personal development of inmates.[45] Every inmate has the right to access a library and most prisons have a library.[46] However, the law makes no specifics about the organization or contents of the library.[46] And, economic troubles and the closing of the German Library Institute and Commission for Special User Groups have made it difficult for libraries to provide adequate services and the social responsibility of libraries is rarely discussed.[47] But, Münster Correctional Facility Library's winning of the German Library Award has drawn attention to prison libraries and inspired many to be advocates for library services to those with special needs.[48]


Prison libraries in Italy have been around since the beginning of the 20th century and were funded by donations.[49] However, it was not until the 1970s, when Italy enacted a law to reform its prisons, did every prison become required to have a library.[50] However, little in the law has changed since then, and libraries are operated by educators rather than professional librarians.[50] There is quite a disparity between prison libraries in Italy, with some being very adequate and beautiful while others are barely operational, and still some prisons have no library at all.[51]

The prison administration is responsible for the operation of prison libraries, services are provided by the government or volunteer groups, and professional aspects are monitored by the university and the Italian Library Association.[52] A new interest by the central prison administration will hopefully lead to positive changes in the prison library system.[53] However, according to Costanzo & Montecchi, Italy's prison libraries are still in need of a central organization for direction, monitoring, and standards.


Japan prisons do not have librarians or a designated library space.[54] Some reading materials are provided, but they are spread throughout the prison.[55] There is essentially no control over these materials, there are no partnerships with public libraries, and Japanese inmates prefer to obtain their reading materials through purchase or from friends and family.[55]

Japanese law mandates that inmates have access to reading materials and there is much regulation as to what reading materials inmates may possess and inspection procedures.[56] However, the only mention of a "prison library" is a provision requiring that the warden make reading materials available.[57] There are also policies and procedures regulating these materials.[57] Education staff, not librarians, manage these collections.[58]


In 1989, Poland reformed its prison system from punitive to rehabilitative, which allowed for the development of prison libraries.[59] The goals of the prison libraries are related to the rehabilitation of inmates and, as such, collections are focused on materials that provide support for rehabilitative activities.[60] The extent of a library collection reflects how strongly the prison administration believes in reading's influence on rehabilitation, but actual titles are chosen by library staff.[61] The libraries are usually operated by education staff, not librarians.[62] While there are problems with Poland's prison libraries, such as limited space, cataloguing issues, and limited hours of access, there are dedicated employees within the system that value the role education and books play in rehabilitation and are helping to provide inmates with options for leisure activities and social development.[63]


In the late 19th century the first schools, and libraries to support those schools, were opened in prisons in Spain.[64] The current structure of prison libraries in Spain was developed in the 1970s, and Spanish law requires that all correctional institutions have a library.[65] In 1999, libraries were removed from the education department and placed under the cultural department.[66] There is national support for prison libraries and many have seen growth in their collections, training for staff, and the collection of statistics.[66] However, there is still much room for improvement. Prison libraries are still in need of professional library staff, full separation from the education department so more library focused services, such as reference, are provided, and more cooperation and networking between libraries.[67]

Role of libraries in lives of ex-prisoners

Libraries are important not only during the term of a prisoner's incarceration but also when the prisoner is released back into society. This is especially true of prisoners of who have spent a long time being incarcerated, as public libraries offer beneficial services. The Hartford Public Library, for example, offers ex-offender resources that include reentry and support services.[68] Their website offers different links and resource information from employment help to family counseling. The Denver Public Library even offers to "sign off" on the time that ex-offenders spend in classes offered in job searching.[69]

American Library Association

The American Library Association (ALA) works to provide library services to incarcerated adults and their families in the United States. ALA policy 8.2 (formerly 52.1) states, "The American Library Association encourages public libraries and systems to extend their services to residents of jails and other detention facilities within their taxing areas." In addition, The Intellectual Freedom Committee has interpreted the Library Bill of Rights to include Prisoners' Right to Read.[70][71] The Special Interest Group "Library Services to the Incarcerated and Detained" provides support to those who serve patrons of any age who are held in jail, prison, detention or immigration facility.[72]



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  2. ^ Rabina, Debbie; Drabinski, Emily (2015). "Reference services to incarcerated people, Part II: sources and learning outcomes". Long Island University. Retrieved April 15, 2022.
  3. ^ Marshall, A. M. J. (2011). Library services in correctional settings. Information Outlook, 15(1), p. 24–26
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  10. ^ (Greenway, p. 56)
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  70. ^ "Prisoners' Right to Read | Intellectual Freedom Manual 8". 2010-07-22. Retrieved 2021-08-01.
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