Term Paper: Prison Libraries

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[. . .] The IFLA states the one employed as prison librarian should have the necessary qualifications in library skills and the "ability to work in a prison environment...and emphasizes the importance of being aware of prisoners' immediate and potential needs" (Lehmann pg). Positions call for a library director with an ALA accredited MLS or equivalent plus two years experience in a professional capacity (Lehmann pg).

There are many organizations and foundations that contribute to prison libraries. Books Through Bars, founded in the late 1980's by the employees of New Society Publishers, "sends quality reading material to prisoners and encourages creative dialogue on the criminal justice system, thereby educating those living inside and outside of prison walls" (Books pg). While conducting a research study at women's prisons, Katherine M. Maeve encouraged her participants to share books with other inmates and to contribute books to the prison library. She has personally donated books and has also coordinated book drives at her university to donate large number of fiction and nonfiction books (Maeve 1). During the last thirty years, The Prison Library Project has donated more than 30,000 books to prisons (Prison pg). Sara Klemm, a senior at the University of Maryland, co-founded Books for Prisons Project that has sent out hundreds of books so far to prisons all across the country (Kumar pg). Students from the University of California-Berkeley rescue hundreds of books being thrown away and donate them to the Prisoner's Literature Project (Adams pg). The Federal Bureau of Prisons Library offers a wide variety of traditional and automated information services" providing a wealth of resources (Federal pg).

Books for jail and prison libraries are generally donated, purchased by the corrections facility, often using profits from inmate commissaries, or borrowed through an arrangement with a public library (Davis C04). Many prisons will only use books that are ordered directly from the publisher due to concerns regarding contraband (Davis C04). Although, courts have ruled that an inmate cannot be "denied a specific book unless there is a compelling security issue, but correction officials make decisions all the time about what books to put in prison libraries" (Davis C04). Elizabeth Alexander, director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that if she was a jailer asking for book donations, the "Boston Strangler" would not be one she would choose (Davis C04). Diana Reese, regional librarian with the Colorado Department of Corrections, says that when deciding which books to buy or borrow, "it often comes down to whether a book poses a security issue or glorifies antisocial behavior" (Davis C04). However, often prison librarians will buy book that they do not approve of simply as a way of introducing inmates to other books (Davis C04). Reese says that inmates like popular fiction, Westerns and travel books, and true crime novels, however, she says "we're careful with what we select...the really, really grisly true crime books we will not purchase" (Davis C04).

Officials say that keeping library shelves stocked is difficult due to book theft. "Inmates become so attached to the books that more than half of them leave the jail with the inmate," say officials (Davis C04). Thus, many prisoners being released from jail are stealing on their way out, however. "they are stealing something that touched them or meant something to them" (Davis C04).

William Coyle, author of "Libraries in Prison" explains that many prison librarians have difficulty negotiating the "differences between their training as service oriented facilitators and research assistants, and their job as gatekeepers of directed socialization" (Day pg). Coyle describes the "limits of prison facility libraries as they are defined by legislative mandates and the practical requirements of the incarceration institution" (Day pg). Coyle's findings suggest that the general prison libraries are far less equipped than the prison law libraries, resulting in prison college graduates appearing far less skilled with regard to data acquisition and manipulation (Day pg).

Prison libraries have changed the lives of numerous inmates. According to The Prison Library Project, "The average inmate has a fourth grade education" (Prison pg). Often the prison library is the first opportunity an inmate encounters the world of literature. Nathan McCall, author of "Makes Me Want to Holler" spent several years in jail for robbing a McDonald's. While pushing the library cart one day he discovered a book that changed his life. It was "Native Son" by Richard Wright. McCall went on to finish college and is now a Washington Post reporter (Author pg). Now a television host in England, Johnny Vaughan coped with prison life by "ploughing through the prison library's entire stock of Russian classics" (Moir pg). Clyde Charles spent most of his spare time in the prison library, "improving his reading skills and meeting fellow inmates who specialized in filing do-it-yourself appeals" (Willing 04A). Denny McLain said he spent "hundred of hours in the prison library, poring over law books, trying to find cases that might have a bearing on mine" (Nack 92). When he found something he would phone his lawyer, Arnold Levine, in Tampa who says that after $3,000 worth of calls he became a "very good jailhouse lawyer" (Nack 92).

Unfortunately, due to funding issues, many prison libraries are closing around the country. In 1998, the Idaho Department of Correction issued a bulletin stating that it was dismantling libraries in five prison facilities (Idaho pg). According to the report, "The changes greatly reduce the number of law books available to inmates" (Idaho pg). In 2001, Washington Governor Gary Locke proposed eliminating prison law libraries, thus saving $1.2 million over a two-year period (Washington pg).

Libraries have come a long way from the earliest known library, a collection of clay tablets in Babylonia in the 21st century B.C. (Library pg). And prison libraries have certainly gone through a huge evolution during the past century. Today an inmate can spend as many as forty hours a week at the prison library or the prison law library to research precedents for appeals (Goldman 204). Moreover, most prison libraries are equipped with computers and educational programs (Special 711). It is clear that prison libraries have changed the lives of many inmates and provided opportunities and resources that they would not have had otherwise.

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