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Prison Librarianship

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Finn is a clinician with a Master's in Social Work from CSU Bakersfield. He also has a Master's in Library Science.


Working in a Prison Library

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'd heard on the street or seen 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 the 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 friend 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 background or beliefs. 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 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 underserved, that libraries hold as sacrosanct.


Prisons Are Not as They Are Portrayed on Television

Keep in mind that most Americans spend anywhere from three to five 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"

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 toward 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 as 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.

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.

The wind sock allows the main yard tower guard to determine resistance factors when seeking a target.

The wind sock allows the main yard tower guard to determine resistance factors when seeking a target.

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 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 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—particularly 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.

A prison library as depicted by Hollywood

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 is 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.

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 LevelShelving LayoutLibrary 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)


Legal only in most cases

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.

An Integral Part of Society

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, and 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 can. It helps me out a lot.

Thank you, and good tidings in your direction.

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

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


I referenced some terms above and will try and define them for you here. In no particular order, they are:

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 Operations 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 dropouts, 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.

Mainline: a yard with housing units. Inmates are assigned to cells or dorms and are usually serving most of, or the remainder of, their sentences here. Mainline usually refers to GP, Level II and above, housing.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I'm considering working in a correctional institution in CA, how would you describe the hiring process?

Answer: I could get into more details if you message me personally. There is a standard application, the STD 678 I think it can go to the site and file electronically now. Let me know what your credentials are and I'll answer your question

© 2017 Finn


Finn (author) from Barstow on February 21, 2019:

Yes inmate advocacy is a genuine concern, particularly given the fact that the United States continues to imprison its citizens as rates higher than other nation. The crime reform bill which was recently passed may provide some alleviation, however, many of those who are incarcerated are from marginalized populations.

A way to curtail some of the social ills faced by inmates needs to be developed.

J.A. on February 21, 2019:

This was really eye-opening! I'm a library student, and none of my classes so far have talked about libraries in prisons. Reading about imprisonment always breaks my heart, but it also reaffirms my belief that inmates need advocates both inside and outside the prison. Resources like libraries are so necessary for inmates and I really appreciate this piece about the reality of prison libraries.

Finn (author) from Barstow on February 15, 2018:

Hi Virginia....sometimes I miss the public library. Your project sounds exciting and I remember trying to create college centers, bringing in guest speakers and such.

I hope you are enjoying your time now.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on February 15, 2018:

Quite informative. I'm a retired librarian and you are right that in the public library, our services often verge on social work. I'm proud that the grants I applied for provided free books to take home for low-income children and a homework center in the library and a special book collection for starting a small business.

Tamara Moore on September 10, 2017:

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 from Oklahoma on August 14, 2017:

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.

Finn (author) from Barstow on August 14, 2017:

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 was a single draft....I think that those in rehabilitation centers need positive support.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 14, 2017:

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. =)

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on August 14, 2017:

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.