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Censorship and Prison Libraries

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

The Standard for Adult Correctional Institutions' Libraries* was developed to provide a tool for planning, implementation, and evaluation of acceptable levels of library services in prisons. Included in the Standards are the ALA Library Bill of Rights and Resolution on Prisoners' Right to Read, adopted by the ALA Council in 1982.

In general, prison libraries, using the Standards as a guide, aim to provide materials and services for the educational, informational, cultural, vocational, and recreational needs of prisoners. The last few years, however, have seen a surge of infringements on prisoner's right to read as prison authorities across the county try to impose restrictions on the contents of materials in the institutions. I sent a questionnaire to librarians to find out how these restrictions affected their libraries, and whether the Library Bill of Rights made any difference. My personal experience with challenges over the past five years, and the movement towards faith-based programming, prepared me for the diversity of responses to the questionnaire. Censorship in prison libraries is on the rise, the extent varying from state to state and among individual institutions within the same state.

Below are some of the kinds of challenges that the librarians reported:

  • No graphic novels because some show skimpily dressed women and it may affect sex treatment programs.
  • No hardback books, because it is easy to hide contraband in spine of these books.
  • No ethnic materials or programs because it means they would have to provide for every ethnic group that demands materials.
  • Mail room has a 20 page list of materials that are not allowed.
  • No homegrown newspapers because it reports the crimes in the neighborhood from which the inmates come and they are afraid of gang retaliation.
  • They have faith-based programs and want materials that support those programs.
  • They tear out sections of magazines that have what they consider inappropriate before sending them to the library or to the inmates who have subscriptions.

Many of the censorship challenges are arbitrary, based on the bias or punitive attitude of individual security officers or other personnel within the institution. Some examples of these are:

  • A prison psychologist advocated removal of books on crime because she felt books on true crime impeded her attempts to treat offenders.
  • A corrections officer wanted books about dogs removed because the institution had a canine unit and he feels it is not good for the inmates to know anything about dogs.
  • The administration in one institution did not want a National Geographic video about Nelson Mandela to be shown because it had a shot of an African child without clothes.
  • Some officers argued about having books on how to start businesses because they feel it is a teaching tool for inmates' scams.

Librarians cope with these challenges in a variety of ways. Some form selection committees comprising education, and security staff, and this helps to reduce the number of challenges. (The cynical part of me says at least it gets some of the security staff to read some literature). Others have used the Library Bill of Rights, pointing out that the materials in question in no way compromise security.

Yet others use the mechanism already in place by their institution's codes of regulation regarding questionable items. For example, in Maryland, the Division Code outlines the steps to challenge library materials. These are often overlooked by the line staff, who sometimes fail to follow up on the challenge after the procedures are brought to their attention.

Several librarians feel they have no choice but to comply when their materials are challenged, either because of job security or for fear of further harassment by the security staff. As one- person managers, they feel their energies are better spent in trying to provide service to the underserved inmates, than in fighting battles with the security staff. The uniqueness of their jobs is such that it is unlikely prison librarians will seek outside support to fight against these challenges. Occasionally, however, on the Prison Library Listserv (prison-l@ala.org), a librarian poses a question and receives answers from those on the listserv. The Prisoners Forum at ALA's Midwinter Meetings or Annual Conferences is another way for prison librarians to share their challenges and responses.

From the prison literature I have read recently, a few prisoners in different states are filing lawsuits against the infringements on their right to read certain kinds of material. Good for them. Prisoners shall not live by faith-based programs alone.

*Note: The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies. Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions 1992. Chicago: American Library Association, 1992.

--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/.

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