The Politics of Prison Libraries

May 22, 2010

The Prison Library
As the economy fluctuates and social programming continues to be cut drastically,, the prison system has taken a hard hit. Post-1970s social do-good era, with a stance of rehabilitation, gave way in the 1990s to a hard line punishment position in criminal justice system. Beginning with the Reagan era and deep into the Bush presidency, the United Sates prison population soared at an alarming rate with an emphasis on punishing the criminal with loss of time, deprivation and isolation, rather than with rehabilitation of the human soul, spirit and mind. It became easy for us to ignore the situation of our incarcerated community, and I want to emphasize “our,” because the prison is still a community/government backed organization, therefore the population that resides behind bars are still members of our community. However; this community is in threat not only of losing library rights, but losing government backing.

In correlation with the increased power of the Bush administration we witnessed the rise of what is now known as the “prison industrial complex.” The concept of a prison industrial complex takes much of the authority (power and control) from the government-based prison system and creates a corporatization and a “for profit” approach. While a industrial complex is still technically controlled by a government entity, a private profit-seeking company gears the enterprise to make money.

This paper will explore economic and political factors of the prison system first by examining the history of prisons, followed by a brief history of prison librarianship. Lastly, how the shift to a “for profit prison industrial complex” has not adequately provided rehabilitation services to inmates or strive to reduce recidivism rates. This industrialization of our prison systems can be seen in essence as a sort of human farm–why would the administration want rehabilitate or reduce prison rates, when this is how they make their profit.

History of Prisons
According to the Bureau of Justice, the United States has the absolute highest incarceration rate of any other country in the free world, with about 2 ½ million people residing behind bars, that is more than 1 per 100 United States residents. According statistics created by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2005, there were 2,193,798 people in U.S. prisons and jails, or 737 per 100,000 residents. This statistic can be broken down to discuss issues of race, which is also an issue of poverty. As of June 30, 2006; 4,789 per 100,000 of the prison population was African American compared to the 409 per 100,000 White prison populations.

The genealogy of the modern prison system began in the early 16th century and steadily spread across Europe. These spaces, known as, “houses of correction,” were the classic concept of what a modern prison should do. The “house of correction” was a temporary penal intuition, used for people convicted of minor infractions. These facilities assumed that individual reformation would occur within a person while in a penal institution. Later this transformed into “work prisons,” which not only exploited the labor of prisoners for a profit. In 1785, English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed a prison system called the Panopticon. (Foucault)This circular design’s intent was to allow all the prisoners to be watched without the prisoners knowing who was being watched. Initially this concept, was conceived to lower prison cost by requiring a smaller workforce. Because the “watchman” is never seen, due to the circular design and a central watchtower the watchman need not remain on duty at all times. The prisoners would not know if the watchman was on duty, consequently leaving the “watching to the watched.” Many modern prisons have been modeled after Bentham’s design, including California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. (Figure 1)

This model ingrains a power relationship that defines the incarcerated as “the other.” It is the inspiration for Foucault’s social theory “Panopticism,” outlined in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. This design puts individuals in a constant state being watched, whether or not they are actually being watched. It is an automatic “mechanism of power.” Foucault’s theory of Panopticism extends beyond the prison system and infiltrates everyone’s daily life, which is the essence of the panoptic model. Foucault sees society as free in design, but is always under constant surveillance.

Foucault provides an important base for the critique of modern prison. He asserts five reasons for the failure of our society’s prison systems. One, detention causes recidivism (Foucault, 1979); two, prison produces delinquents; three, the system brings a collaboration of delinquents together (Foucault, 1979); four, the mark left by being an “ex-con” and the stigma left from having been under constant surveillance promotes recidivism (Foucault, 1979); and finally, the prison system indirectly produces delinquents by throwing the inmate’s family into destitution (Foucault, 1979). This critique Foucault says can be dated back to the years of 1820-1845, but these same critiques can clearly be applied to the prison system at present. This all being laid out, the problems of prison life are evident. How do we as students, instructors, and librarians deal with the topic of the incarcerated patron?

History of Libraries in Prison
There is no solid evidence pertaining to the history of when library within prisons began to appear. According to Rhea Joyce Rubin and Sandra J. Souza in their article; The Challenge Continues: Prison Librarianship in the 80s, books have been provided to prisoners since 1790s and from the beginning of the 20th century prisons have had official libraries with librarians running them. (Rubin and Souza, 1989) This fact is backed by author Rudolf Engelbarts in his title Books in Stir: a bibliographic essay about prison libraries and about books written by prisoners and prison employees. He states that in Philadelphia the Prison Society furnished books to a newly renovated “Walnut Street Jail” in 1790, stating that all the books were of a theological nature, including bible, prayer books, sermons, and book pertaining to moral well being. (Engelbarts, 1972) He cites a small library within Kentucky prison system as early as 1802, but nothing official until 1840 and still all books pertained to religion.

It was not until 1870 that the American Prison Association, now the American Correctional Association, at the first Nation Prison Congress conference, established a “Declaration of Principles” delineating the mission statement of prison libraries. The declaration states that: “To assure the eventual restoration of the offender as an economically self-sustaining g member of the community, the correctional program must make available to each inmate every opportunity to raise his educational level, improve his vocational competence and skills, and add to his information meaningful knowledge about the world and the society in which he must live.” (Vogel, 1995, p.55)

It was also at this conference that the concepts of collection development began to take form, stepping somewhat away from a completely theological moralistic material based collection. This mission statement is still powerful today and was in fact reaffirmed ninety years after its conception, by the American Correctional Association.

It took up until the 1950s before the collection content of prison libraries began to replace a complete theological based collection with one based more on prisoner’s needs and wants. In 1977 the Supreme Court case of Bounds v. Smith ruled that prisoners were to be allowed “access to the courts,” from this outcome many correctional institutions began to develop law libraries a means to this access. (Vogel, 1995) From this point until the 1990 hardliner mentality gained control, prison libraries worked within that humanistic mission statement. However in the late ’80s and early ‘90s the situation changed for the incarcerated

Government policy that is, theoretically, formed by the citizens and those we have chosen to represent our view on legislation–maintains their “hard on crime” stance, yet do not want to fund this stance. Fiscal reality across the United States and citywide has caused a slash in social services, education and library budgets. The average prison library budget in $14,000 a year, this budget does not include staff salary. Funding come from a number of resources, about half come from a state or federal budget with the remainder coming from inmate funds and outside donations. (Bowden, 2003)

In times of recession and high unemployment prison rates increase with 2/3 of all new inmates convicted for “non-violent” offenses. By 2008 in the United States there were over 2 million adults and juveniles living behind bars. The economics of poverty and race are at the core of prison overcrowding and overpopulating. The decline of the economy on the American landscape made the switch from government run facilities to privatized “for profit” prison industry transiton with relative ease and little publicity.

Prison Industrial Complex
The most significant detrimental change that has occurred, directly related to the Bush administration “tough on crime” regime is the creation and rise of the “prison industrial complex.” According to Tracy F.H. Chang and Douglas E. Thomkins in their article, Corporations Go to Prisons: The Expansion of Corporate Power in Correctional Industry, explain the “prison industrial complex” as “a convergence of the economic and political interests of exalting corporate profits and elite power from incarceration.” (45) The concept is one of basic privatization and capitalization at the expense of those deemed criminal and have essentially become a disposable community. There are two main components of this enterprise; prison privatization and prison industrialization.

It is quite apparent of the economic, political and racial inequalities related to incarceration rates. When unemployment and poverty increases–many times this will result in income and racial inequality, which inevitably leads to an increase in incarceration rates, which subsequently benefits a private for profit prison system. In a 2001 reported, quoted in the Chang and Douglas article, that African Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population on a whole, but represent 46% of the U. S. prison population. This disproportionate prison population ratio is directly related to race and economics. This inequality lead to a major increase in prison population rates, followed by entrepreneur enterprises cashing in on the human crop of the incarcerated as corporations began to explore the cash opportunity available through contracting their services to federal and state governments. Soon these private companies expanded their commerce to include the employment of inmates for profit.
The Prison Industrial Complex, often takes over existing poverty ridden towns and areas whose economy has long gone stagnant. The move in of large industrialized prisons stimulate these economies in many ways–including increased business for semi prison related industry such as hospitals, drug, alcohol, and domestic abuse counseling–as well as for non-prison related industry such as hardware stores and other local business. Pelican Bay State Prison located in Crescent City California, just ten miles from the Oregon border is a prime example of the Prison Industrial Complex moved into this economically dying town. In 1989 Crescent City was looking at about a 20% unemployment rate, the town is isolated and was poverty stricken a perfect location for a Prison Industrial Complex. By 1999 Pelican Bay State Prison had provided the area with 1, 500 jobs with a payroll of about $50 million dollars. (Parenti)
The largest for profit prions organization, subsidized and contracted by State and Federal government is, The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Their mission, found on their website, a “partnership with government, we will provide a meaningful public service by operating the highest quality adult corrections company in the United States.” Their tag-line “America’s Leader in Partnership Corrections.” In 1989 CCA started their organization with 3,448 beds, by 2000 they held contracts for 77,500 beds in 21 states, 50 facilities in United States, Puetro Rico, England, France, and Australia. CCA opened publicly for trade in 1986, between 1992 and 1997 they had experienced a growth of 70%. (Chang and Thomkins)

Exploitation of Prison Labor
The exploitation of prison labor was around long before CCA came into existence starting around 1790 when the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia contracted incarcerated individuals out to private businesses. In 1825 prisoners were often leased out for agriculture production. The Great Depression and the rise of labor unions saw political protest to restrict the use of prions labor withe the passing of the Sumners-Ashurst Act in 1940, which outlawed the use of prison labor. However–politics shift–and in 1979 Congress created the Prison Industry Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which again open up the private market to exploit the use of prison labors.

From the onset of a prison labor work force there have been four main methods of labor, that are still used today. One; contract labor, two; piece price, three; for lease (of not only the prisoner, but of the prison space), and four; state use system/public works. Ingrained in all these methods of labor is profit. The incarcerated community as a work force do not get collective bargaining rights, they make minimum wages–which are often taken to pay for fees, and they are not provided with health benefits or compensation. Often prisoners who refuse to work are denied privilege and often required to spend time in solitary confinement. (Chang and Thomkins)

Prison industry faces strong opposition from labor unions/labor movement, social, and political activists are opposed to the use of prison labor and have been key players in in deterring the expansion of the prison industrial labor for profits. The American Bar Association questions “the unconstitutionality of delegating coercive power and authority of punishment for crime…to private hands.” (Chang and Thomkins)

Prison Libraries: soulutions for reform and rehabilitation
With two million incarcerated men, women and juveniles living in the United States Prison systems being sourced out and made commodities for another man’s profit only adds to the dehumanizing reality of incarceration. The United States is the leader in imprisoning their citizens, coupled with the consistent decline of our economy–social programs across the board have been a constant issue to tax payers, free citizens, and politicians. How do prison libraries function in a declining economy with a declining sentiment for the incarcerated individual?

The ideal solution of how libraries can save and change the lives of incarcerated citizens, is for those of us in the library field to collectively catch our “at risk” communities minds with knowledge before the individual becomes a prisoner. Education and knowledge reduced prison and recidivism rates and can stop the circle of prison many families fall into. We should be trained to recognize an “at risk” patron and connect them to a chance for a higher education before we are serving them in prisons. Knowledge not prison would be ideal.
Librarians that choose to work in this environment , are doing just that–choosing–choosing to create change, to believe that regardless of an individuals place in the judicial system that they deserve the right to information just as much, if not more, than those of not fettered by a prison system. Nanette Perez, of the American Library Association, states eloquently and compassionately in a draft version of the, Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.

When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

If by way of the judicial process, we the free, have decided to incarcerate an individual it is up to us to provide essential rights, and this means the right to information, the right to read and the right to technology. Prison libraries need to connect more with their local public libraries and share resources where needed. New York Public Library has created a great model of how public libraries can be a consortium to their prion library.The Correctional Services Program at NYPL’s goal is simple and effective, “to get books into the hands of incarcerated New Yorkers and to provide inmates accurate information on useful community resources upon release.” The Correctional Services Program also strives for a reduction of recidivism rate through informational rehabilitation by publishing Connections and The Job Search, a list of resources in New York City to aid former inmates in issues such work, and locating public and social service agencies after release.

Any library information student with an interest in public librarianship should include the role of the prison library in their studies and consider ways they may take part–such as internships, book donation programs–create an amazon wish list for you local prison library. Create a prison program, many institutions are open to volunteer inmate programs.
It takes a compassionate individual to work in a prison library, but change can happen outside the walls of prison that will help those inside. The important issue is to think it is not an issue; all citizens have the right to read, to information and now technology.

American Library Association. (2010). Association of specialized and cooperative library agencies. Retrieved April 30, 2010, from American Library Association Web site:
Bowden, T.S. . (2003). A Snapshot of state prison libraries with a focus on technology. Behavioral and Social Science Librarian, 21(2), Retrieved from http//

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Initials. Last updated (2010, May 04). Bureau of Justice statistics (bjs). Retrieved from

California department of corrections and rehabilitation. Retrieved April 02, 2010, from CA.Gov Web site:

Chang, Tracy F.H., & Thompkins, Douglas E. (2002). Corporations go to prisons: the expansion of corporate power in correctional industry. Labor Studies Journal, 27(1), Retrieved from ue&db=eoah&AN=2162157& site=ehost-live

Engelbarts, Rudolf (1972). Books in stir: a bibliographic essay about prison libraries and about books written by prisoners and prison employees. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press
Foucault, Michael (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Vintage.

New york public library:correctional services program. (2010). Retrieved from

Parenti, C. (1999, September 1). The Prison industrial complex: crisis and control. Retrieved from

Perez , N. (2010, March 03). Prisoners’ right to read: an interpretation of the library bill of rights (draft). Retrieved from

Rubin, R., & Souza, S. (1989, March). The Challenge Continues: Prison Librarianship in the 1980s. Library Journal, 114(4), 47-51. Retrieved April 28, 2010, from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts database.

Vogel, Brenda (1995). Down for the count: A prison library handbook. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

Online Resources


Figure 1. California Pelican Bay State Prison based on Panopticon design


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