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A Career in Prison Librarianship

Updated on August 13, 2017

Introduction

As someone who was relatively new to prison libraries, I had many reservations about working in an environment I was completely unfamiliar with: most of my ideas about prison came from things I heard on the street or saw depicted in movies. I know very little about the law and legal proceedings and what little I do know discouraged me from pursuing such opportunities.

I understood how libraries worked: I started out shelving books, spent some time in the circulation department and then earned an MLS degree (Master's in Library Science) and worked in various positions as a professional librarian. In this capacity I usually worked a reference desk and answered basic questions. I also took time to create a college center for high school students and a job center for the people in the community who were looking for work. I did a lot of programming for various age groups: craft projects for children and teens and author talks for adults. I helped create a friends group for one of the branches I worked at. It was very involved and there were many rewards career wise.

One of the aspects I really appreciated about the public library was the chance to serve diverse populations, particularly those who are marginalized by various social or economic disparities. The public library was open to everyone regardless of their backgrounds or belief. There was an element of social work to it because very often, a majority of the patrons you assist are disadvantaged members of the community.

Prison libraries, as one might surmise, contain a large number of those disadvantaged persons as one might guess. Certainly, there is a reason why people are incarcerated and removed from society, but more often than not, there are also factors that may have influenced their criminal behavior.

Making a transition from the public library to a one inside a correctional facility isn't a simple decision to make. However, when one considers the many opportunities you have to offer your patrons as a librarian, the transition can be understood and be made with relative ease. Particularly if you believe in some of the missions such as helping the under served that libraries hold as sacrosanct.

Prisons Are Not As They Are Portrayed On Television

Keep in mind that most Americans spend anywhere from 3 to 5 hours a day watching television programs. That is roughly a quarter of your time awake - even more. Chances are during your TV watching sprees you have seen programs where prisons have been part of the scenery either in the program itself or in reference to one of the characters in the show. Because I am certain you are familiar with the genre, I won't get into any details about how correctional facilities or inmates are portrayed. It's all fiction and even the reality television shows, which have an element of authenticity to them, use drama and exaggeration in order to keep audiences enticed and interested in continuing to watch.

The Prison Break in The Shawshank Redemption

One should not arrive at the notion that prisons are pleasant places and harmonious. Inmates have a set of rules and regulations that they have to follow and the environment is one of various sorts of deprivations. There are incidents of violence as well as should be expected when you have such a large number of people who probably do not want to be there, housed together in the same location. As a new worker, you have to keep your sensibilities about you and realize that you could be the victim of a manipulation scheme.

You need to develop a rapport with the people you work with in the library as well as your library patrons. You want to show them a level of respect but maintain a professional distance as well. You are friendly with the residents - or inmates - but you are not their friends. Working in a prison library environment is very similar to working in a public library in many ways, but there are vast differences as well.

In this article - which is geared towards those considering a career in correctional libraries - I hope to dispel some of the myths and provide you with some basic guidelines that might assist you in the transition. I will base my views on my own experiences as well some information that my colleagues have shared with me. I think working in a library in a prison is a very rewarding experience and you have the chance to help make the lives of the incarcerated a little bit better. In many ways, you have the opportunity to help provide the rehabilitative tools parolees may need to prepare for reentry.

If you are genuinely considering a career in prison libraries I urge you to follow up on this. If you are a curiosity seeker, I hope this article will enlighten you and answer any questions you may have.

Walking Behind the Walls for the First Time

The first time I stepped through the sallyport and through the Central Control area to view my first prison library, I was a bit nervous. The gates which were topped with razor wire slipped slowly open. A row of guard towers lined the fenced perimeter and led out to a bleak horizon of dark mountains. The ground was a brown plain of a bleak field that seemed to lead to nowhere.

Between the two sets of fences that are close to 20 feet high and lined with razor wire, is an electric fence that stretches the entire outside circle of the prison. There is a cement foundation supporting it with holes in it for rodents or other animals to go through. At one time, it wasn't unusual to find many carcasses in this area. When you arrive in the sallyport a Plexiglas wall rests between those who enter and the fence. A sign reads Danger High Voltage and Peligro and shows the figure of a man falling over with a red lightning bolt striking his hand.

Because of security reasons, many prisons are located in remote areas. Some are near small cities that basically became more populated after the prisons were built - either because the workers chose to live there, or families of the incarcerated chose to live near their loved ones.

You go through several gates - checkpoints and are required to show your Identification at each one. In some complexes it can take you fifteen minutes to walk from the parking lot, through the gates to your designated work area. The libraries that I've worked at are all on the yard - a grassy area where the housing units are located.


The Prison Yard

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Guard tower and fence with razor wireA typical yard with the housing units in the background.the sign warning you of the electric fence
Guard tower and fence with razor wire
Guard tower and fence with razor wire
A typical yard with the housing units in the background.
A typical yard with the housing units in the background.
the sign warning you of the electric fence
the sign warning you of the electric fence

Walking onto the yard and seeing the inmates there for the first time was a bit of a shocking experience honestly. There were people right there, milling about, most of them wearing clothes that read "CDC Prisoner". Some of them were walking or running the oval track while others played games like softball. A few sat at tables talking. Others were picking up trash or carrying papers to the buildings where the library and other services were located. It looked almost like a normal day at the park except for the fact that there were no women or children.

My first apprehensions faded almost immediately and I had to use these large keys I was provided to gain access to the library itself. The content of the libraries vary greatly depending upon the institution you are at and the yard you are on within that particular campus. I'll into that some more a little later in the article.

A Busy Prison Yard with Active Residents

the wind sock allows the main yard tower guard to determine barometric factors when seeking a target
the wind sock allows the main yard tower guard to determine barometric factors when seeking a target

Your Opinion Please

Have you ever been inside a prison?

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The Mission of the Prison Library

In the public sector, the library is there to provide the community leisure reading resources as well as information to support independent learning. There are often public records or archives of materials such as newspapers and directories. Libraries are where the community history is stored and where people can borrow movies, make copies, prepare documents or engage in community meetings. Most of these services are free.

Prison libraries very often are not much different. Recreational reading is available through a collection of popular fiction or periodicals. The nonfiction collections support curiosity, independent learning or the local school curriculum. Some libraries hold programs for the inmates that might be similar to ones found in the public library. Most of all, the libraries at the prisons in California are designed to provide inmates with legal resources to assist them with their personal court cases. Legal forms are provided as well as access to information concerning case law, various codes and statutes and rules of court.

To work in a legal library, one does not require a background, or even a familiarity with law. You don't even have to be interested in the law in order to qualify for a position as a Correctional Facility Librarian. You just have to be supportive of service to the patrons who reside in the institution and be able to follow policies outlined in the Title 15, the DOM and the OP. These are the basic guidelines on how correctional facilities are run and I'll define each in a few paragraphs.

You do have to be able to work with a wide variety of people and have a respect for people from different cultural, economic and racial backgrounds. People may use various types of slang and have ways of speaking that some librarians may find either unfamiliar of objectionable. If you are one of those stuffed shirts or skirts who is always going to their supervisor over petty things or feels the need to call the police because you see a man of color in the library, then you probably should not consider working in a prison. People in prison have the right to access the library and in fact, the law library is one of the few sacred places in the facility. Everyone gets along there regardless of their racial backgrounds and I will often see black and white inmates helping each other out, offering advice and being overall supportive of their neighbors. There are some people in the public library sector who are very intolerant of certain groups - particular young men of color - and I am not sure how these people obtained civil service positions to begin with.

If you are open minded, have a keen sense of right and wrong, have the ability to be non-judgmental and work well under stressful situations, you might consider working in a prison library.

Have you ever considered a career in librarianship?

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A Prison Library as Depicted by Hollywood

Some Major Differences You May Encounter in a Prison Library

Prison libraries of course, have strict guidelines that dictate not only how they are run, but their content as well. In public libraries, the freedom to read is a tenet that most libraries support wholeheartedly. Intellectual Freedom is ubiquitous in the minds of most professional librarians. Some of those notions, must be forfeited in the prison culture. There are subjects that are prohibited in both non-fiction and fictional works. Think of the Hays Code in the Film Noir era.


Some subjects that are restricted from the libraries include:

  • depictions of violence against police officers
  • books on locksmithing
  • literature that deals with survival techniques in the wilderness
  • martial arts instructional materials
  • depictions of human genitalia or full frontal nudity (other than medical works)
  • certain titles on tattooing
  • books supportive of gang subcultures (STGs - see glossary)

There is actually a list of Prohibited Publications that is sent from Sacramento (in California prisons) that lists specific titles. While many of them are related to erotic literature or extreme Hip Hop culture, there are some titles which might be considered notable works that have been excluded. The second book of the Game of Thrones series for example is not permitted in the libraries, the others books have been cleared.

Some other differences include limited computer access. In many libraries, computer terminals are restricted to legal databases exclusively. Making the material available through a CD ROM database saves space because otherwise the library would have to store all the legal publications and that would be composed of several hundred volumes. There is no internet access in a prison library.

Copy services are limited to legal materials only. Inmates pay for copies as well through their personal accounts by filling out a form. Copies in the public library are done at will and there is no restriction on subject matter in the outside world.

Newspapers are limited usually to publications such as USA Today for security reasons.

In both the public sector and prison world, libraries face limited budgets. Of course the emphasis in the public library is more general and there usually are a larger selection of materials available in the public arena. In prison, the emphasis is on law and legal research.

Recreational reading and independent learning are secondary. Legal forms are available at the library for inmate use and often there are a significant number of resources that emphasize community support: halfway houses, education assistance, employment agencies and other social services that inmates may need to prepare for re-entry. In the public library, many of these latter topics are available in limited quantity.

Libraries are Sacrosanct

The Security Level or Yard Often Depicts the Library Layout

Depending upon the type of Yard (GP or SNY e.g.) or the Level (I,II, III, IV) the library may have a different focus. A GP yard means General Population; SNY means Special Needs Yard, an RC is a Reception Center. These will be briefly defined in the glossary at the end.

There are varying security levels as well:

  • Level I - low level inmates usually preparing for release
  • Level II - inmates who have fewer violations in prison or are preparing for a Level I yard.
  • Level III - higher security inmates, but not a high threat group
  • Level IV - the worse offenders

The table below will provide a brief overview of the libraries compared to the population type.

Libraries and the population served

Security Level
Shelving Layout
Library Focus
Level I or M Yard
Open shelf. Free browsing - similar to public library
Emphasis on Recreational Reading.
Level II
Open shelf
Emphasis on legal work. Lots of recreational reading.
Level III
Closed shelf - staff must assist
Legal Forms. Education. Community Information. Some recreational reading. Literacy and education
Level IV
Closed shelf - often behind a locked gate
Legal work. Recreational Reading.
RC (Reception Center)
Closed
Legal only in most cases
 
 
 

What sorts of materials should inmates be provided?

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Usually there are library services of some sort

Most buildings that don't have access to libraries are given book carts to choose from
Most buildings that don't have access to libraries are given book carts to choose from

In Conclusion

Libraries are integral parts of a society; they are sacrosanct. Even in the digital age, we need people to save, store and disseminate information. There are people today who still prefer the feel of a book to the glare of a screen. Books have pleasant aromas, are interactive, can provide you with a nice breeze when you flip the pages. They are difficult to manipulate once produced and are portable. Books will probably be around 500 years from now and they will need libraries to store them in. The public library is far from dead.

By the same token, people who live in a correctional facility need to be able to access information that helps them succeed in their personal endeavors or stimulates their imaginations. Libraries in a prison are an oasis from a world that is sometimes very uncomfortable and disturbing. By providing inmates with books or other tools that provide a positive focus, the prisoner is distracted from planning an escape or other nefarious activities. Prisons need libraries to keep their community safe and to provide meaningful ways for their residents to pursue higher goals. Incarceration is a punishment but there should not be torture involved. Putting limits on the human mind and imposing mental restrictions is subhuman.

If you are considering a career in prison librarianship, I would encourage you to move forward and pursue it. I have enjoyed it immensely myself and discovered a world I never would have known otherwise. I would list some career guidance here, but I am not only writing from a limited perspective, but if you are a librarian, you can probably discover it yourself. If you do have questions please feel free to email me.

If you just came across this out of curiosity, please let me know how you found this article. I would like to know.

Also, please answer the survey questions if you could, it helps me out a lot.

Thank you and good tidings in your direction.

Did this article help you and answer any questions you may have had about prison librarianship

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a library with a mural (probably designed by resident artists)
a library with a mural (probably designed by resident artists)

Glossary

I referenced some terms above and will try and define them for you here. They are in no particular order.


Title 15 - the State of California's Rules governing how correctional facilities are to be run. This is the highest set of rules in the CDCR.

CDCR - California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

DOM - Department Operation's Manual - the CDCR's interpretation of the Title 15

OP - Operational Procedures. Each Institution has a set of rules that are adopted from the Title 15 and the DOM.

GP - General Population inmates. Inmates who are not SNY or other designations. Just as it sounds, general people.

SNY - Special Needs Yard. These are inmates who may have committed certain offenses that could jeopardize their safety, former police officers or the like, gang drop outs, celebrities or crimes that may have attracted special attention.

STG - Security Threat Groups. Basically gangs like the Aryan Nation, Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Mafia etc.

RC - Reception Center. Basically the place you go to when you enter the prison system and determine which facility to send you to. Usually your stay here is very brief, but some inmates have been in the RC for a year or more.

M Yard - Minimal Yard. A Level I facility. No electric fence. Usually the inmate is nearing release.



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    • profile image

      Tamara Moore 13 days ago

      I have seen many prison movies, such as:

      Escape From Alcatraz

      The Shanshrok(?) Redemption

      All the sudden, my mind has gone blank, but I have seen so many of these movies. I did not know that prison was as you have described above in your most informative article.

      The polls did not allow me to click on them.

      Thank you for this interesting and truly unique article!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 5 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      I taught Composition in a prison. It's very helpful in such an endeavor for students to have access to a quality library. Sadly it was not one at this facility.

    • wpcooper profile image
      Author

      Finn Liam Cooper 5 weeks ago from Los Angeles

      thanks for your comments louise and john. Yes it is an interesting place to work. I don't know why the polls won't work...someone else said that to me too...I hope the article made sense....it was a single draft....I think that those in rehabilitation centers need positive support.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 5 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

      I've always considered being a librarian, but never thought about working in a prison library. To be honest, I think I would find it a little intimidating. I did go inside a mens prison once when I was doing some voluntary work for a charity. I can see how it would be an interesting career though. I never thought about the books that would be restricted inside a prison. Your article was really interesting to read, thankyou. =)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 5 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      This was a very interesting article, Liam. I worked in a University library for ten years, starting as a shelver and then photocopy and mailing officer. I started a librarians course but never completed it for various reasons. Anyway, a prison library would be a special place to work. I have a son who is a correctional officer at a juvenile correction facility. I couldn't answer the polls..wouldn't let me click a button.