Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


What do Prisoners Read? Prison Libraries and Collection Development

By Glennor Shirley, MSDE, Coordinator, Correctional Education Libraries.

What do prisoners read?  I am asked frequently.  Surprise often greets my response that prisoners read the same materials one would find in a local public library including titles on bestseller lists.

Prisons are total communities where all aspects of life are conducted in the same place.  Many correctional libraries serve as the community information centers, providing resources for self directed learning, information retrieval, recreational reading, and materials to help the inmate transition back to society.

Library services, staffing, and collections vary among states, the more successful programs being located   in correctional institutions where the administration is committed to successful reentry and actively supports educational and library programs.  Some states provide law libraries in order to satisfy the Supreme Court’s mandate of access to the courts; Bounds v.   Smith.[i]   Others provide separate law and recreational reading libraries. Many libraries like Maryland Correctional Educational Libraries operate on the model of public libraries, providing collection and services according to the standards established by the American Library Association, ASCLA.[ii]

Prisons are generally classified according to security levels- maximum, medium, minimum, and prerelease, maximum being the highest level of security.  Maximum security level prisoners do intense legal research, seeking sentence reduction.  Reference collection in these libraries is heavily weighted towards legal print and non print materials materials.   Core collections consist of encyclopedias, dictionaries, directories, handbooks, subject dictionaries, similar to the collections in a small community public library.

The nature of Total Institutions always results in a staff inmate split, where any member of staff has the right to discipline.  The library becomes the primary access point for inmates who seek information on rules when they perceive violations of their rights

When surveyed about content of their collection- librarians replied:[iii]

  • Small but well balanced collection, similar to a public library
  • Heavy use of homegrown newspapers
  • Prisoners love studying the human body
  • We cater to the GED program and the 2 year college program
  • General fiction, inspirational books, humor
  • Wide range of books that reflect the interest of all ethnic groups
  • Collection built around ethnic interest and reading levels
  • Career oriented software

Top requests among non fiction category are: self help, writing business plans,  career,  true crime, biographies, psychology, African American Literature, United States history, sports, music, poetry, body building, health, religion, art, writing and publishing skills, materials on the trades.

Top requests among fiction are: horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy, action adventure, historical fiction, crime novels, military/war stories, mystery, westerns, and family drama.

Popular fiction authors include, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Donald Goines, Sydney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Stuart Woods, Jeffrey Deavers, John Grisham, Walter Mosley, all African American writers, all authors of Westerns.

While many libraries have a collection of the classical literature, these are not popular reading materials. In the survey several librarians mentioned censorship by the prison administration.   In libraries where the Prisoners’ right to read is not respected, the collection is a watered down version of prison- approved materials, rather than a collection based on the librarian’s assessment of interest.

All prison libraries have budget constraints; some libraries had no budget, but a collection based on donations.   Other libraries develop relationships with their local library systems and use inter library loans to enable wider access to materials.   Maryland Correctional Libraries is part of the state’s Inter Library Loan (ILL) and use the correctional library email network to request materials within the Maryland Correctional system.   Criteria must be set for the use of   ILL materials so library systems are not inundated with requests for high demand materials.

To ensure optimum use of its limited funds, it is important to develop materials selection and donations policies.  The latter is important because librarians frequently get offers from well meaning citizens who are cleaning out their basement after a family member’s death, or from lawyers who think it is a shame to toss the old law books that they no longer need. Sorting through donations is staff and time intensive and may not provide much to add to the collection.

Correctional Librarian needing guidance in material selection can read Vogel’s prison library handbook[iv]. Information can also be obtained from Maryland Correctional Education Library’s Web site.[v]

[i] Bounds V. Smith, 430 U.S.817 (1977)
[ii] American Library Association. ASCLA. Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions 1992
[iii] Internet survey conducted by Glennor Shirley, 2003
[iv] Vogel, Brenda. Down for the Count: a prison library handbook. Lanham, MD. The Scarecrow Press,  1995
[v] Http://ce.msde.state.md.us/library/libraries.htm.

--Glennor Shirley is the Library Coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries.  Prior to that she has served as the Former Manager, Randallstown Branch of Baltimore County Library and East Columbia Branch, Howard County Library; as the Bookmobile Librarian, Jamaica Library Service; and as a Special Librarian for Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. She blogs at http://prisonlibrarian.blogspot.com/.


First-Ever Joint Conference

By Jan Meadows, Bookmobile Supervisor, Pikes Peak Library District.

October 13th the fun begins! Where? In Columbus, OH of course! That is where the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services and the Association of Rural and Small Libraries will gather for the first ever joint conference. And what a conference it will be. Be sure to rest up before you come and plan a day to recover when you get back home!

What will you learn? Everything from grassroots advocacy (Carol Brey-Casiano, President of ALA) and coping with financial distress (Mark Merrifield, Director, Nicolet Federated Library System) to options for library automation (Thomas Walker, Systems Manager, Charleston County PL) and vehicle buying and maintenance (Scott Pointon, Head of Extension Services, Decatur PL). Need to write a grant, Colleen Carney, Director of Berkeley County Library will teach you how. How about help with providing services in urban areas, to seniors, or to diverse communities? Linda Sperry, Mobile Services Manager, Cleveland PL, Ruth Pettibone, Asst. Manager Outreach Services, Columbus Metropolitan PL and Almetta Russel, Librarian, Outreach Services, Dallas PL will all be there to share their expertise with you.

Need ideas on how to manage your rural or small library for the future, Jim Rancilio, Director, Bullard Sanford Memorial Library will be there to lead the way. Been having some accidents around your library or bookmobile? Geoffrey Jolly, Bookmobile Driver, Huntsville-Madison PL will help you eliminate your hazards. How about Marketing for survival or How to save your bookmobile operation, Susan Hill, Director, Paulding County Carnegie Library and Bill Knapp, Bookmobile Driver, Steele Memorial Library Assoc. can help you save the day and your service! Want some new ideas for Outreach through the Web or after school programming? Then you must attend Cathay Crosby’s session (Coordinator for Books After the Bell, Cecil County PL). Robert Flatley, Reference and Instruction Librarian, Rohrbach Library can line you up with free electronic databases. And don’t forget the bookmobile vendors who will bring us up to date on what’s new in vehicles at one session and then answer our questions in another session.

Are you tired yet? Well don’t slow down now because every evening there are exciting events also. Find out about Bookmobile service in New Zealand at an evening session with Bernie Hawke, Library Services Manager, Dunedin Public Libraries, Dunedin, NZ.

Dale Lipschultz, “dynamo” Literacy Officer, ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), Tim Ponder, Ponder and Associates, and a Verizon representative will address “Building Literacy” one evening. Stan Maclin, Sr., Storyteller, will enthrall the audience with “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” on Thursday evening. There will be discussion tables and vendor hospitality suites too.

Beatrice Calvin, the OLOS Communications Officer, will also be at the conference. She'll be looking for new ideas and resources to add to the OLOS website. So feel free to introduce yourself and bombard her with all your wonderful ideas.

Wrapping up the conference, “Will happy days be here again—working with trustees to insure success” by Donald Reynolds, Director, Nolichucky Regional Library. (I sure hope the answer is yes!)

I personally think it is marvelous that this conference has everyone from Bookmobile Drivers, to Managers, to Directors, to the President of ALA presenting. This gives us lots of different perspectives. What an honor to hear each and everyone of them speak! It is a stellar lineup! I am especially pleased that Carol Bray-Casiano will be at the conference because it demonstrates that she, like Carla Hayden before her, understands and supports the important role of Bookmobiles/Outreach Services and Small/Rural Libraries in providing equity of access and equitable service delivery.

I ask you, where else can you get so much information related to your specific job for such a great price? For all the details go to www.clarion.edu/rural and scroll down to “joint conference”. The entire program, registration forms and hotel information are all located at this site. The registration deadline is October 8, 2004 so there is still time to sign up. But hurry, you don’t want to miss this sensational opportunity!

I hope to see you all there. Please come up and introduce yourself if you spot me running around there. I would love to meet you! I would also like to hear from all bookmobile and outreach folks who won’t be able to attend. We are working on programming for ALA in Chicago in the summer 2005 and want to offer programs on subjects that are important to you. Email me at jmeadows@ppld.org with your thoughts, wishes and needs for ALA programs or any other bookmobile/outreach related topics. Thanks, until next time!

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