Monday, 14 March 2016

Prison Library

The Prison Library

An Oasis of Normality in an otherwise crazy World

"It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines 
what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde


The Prison Library Service provides prisoners with a range of reading, audio, visual and reference materials. 

I have been asked to write a blog on the Prison Library. The person that asked me felt that it might be good for you to hear from someone who had experience from “inside” the system. I worked in a Prison Library for over 18 months. For those of you who expect to hear a proper rant from me on the faults of the library, I fear that you will be sorely  disappointed. I have nothing bad to say for it save for a few points. These points are not really the fault of the library  rather than the system that lets it down so badly.

So let's deal with the facts first. PSI 02/2015 (Prison Library Service) deals with the services, organisation and stocking of Prison Libraries. It details how long and how often a prisoner should get to spend in the library, what basic services he can expect to receive whilst there and some ancillary offerings. It also details, what seems to be a gripe of many; the banning of books.

Let’s get some quotes going…

Prisoner’s allotted time:

1.6 Governors must ensure as a minimum that a prisoner’s statutory entitlement to library provision is met. Access to the library must be weekly, for a minimum duration of thirty minutes. Local arrangements will dictate what will be the most appropriate times for access to libraries. Prison establishments and library service providers must ensure that these arrangements are reflected in the Service Level Agreements.

Now this is a bugbear of mine. Libraries are often located in the education wing of a prison and therefore only accessible to prisoners who attend education. The PSI clearly states that the library must be located where prisoners can have clear and unfettered access to it.  I understand that locating of departments can be space-sensitive, but closing it when the education department closes seems nonsensical to me. If one is in full time employment, one is unable to access the library other than when one’s wing “evening library” night occurs. A normal wing houses in excess of 100 prisoners. Staffing shortages mean that with the 12:1, prisoner to staff, escorting regulations only 12 prisoners from a wing can be taken to the library on that appointed evening. Result: the prison service is failing in its mandate to ensure that all prisoners are getting access to the library. This is not the fault of the service provider (FYI most prison libraries are run and staffed by the local county). Indeed I can confirm that our library staff used to get most upset when the evening library was cancelled (usually at the last minute). This is unforgivable. I know of no Governor that wishes to cancel the library evenings and that sometimes things are out of their control, however it is an issue that can not go unaddressed.

Availability of books/material:

6.11 The Library should provide any materials that might normally be found on the shelves of a public library. Restrictions on prisoners’ reading materials should be minimal within the constraints required to foster good order and control in a custodial situation.

And here is a cracker:


8.1. Arrangements will be made to assess any book requested by any prisoner where it is felt that book may contain information that should be restricted on the grounds of public safety, maintenance of good order and control of the establishment, or due to the prisoner’s index, secondary, or previous offences. Public protection strictures on controlled materials must be followed.

What do we take from this? Well, the prison can  not be banning books purely because they don’t like the content. They can ban a book if it is cause for security concern or could be detrimental to the public order of the prison. They can also forbid a prisoner from obtaining a book if it has to do with his index offence. So pretty much the Governor has carte Blanche to utilise the rules as he sees fit. Although I very rarely saw The Governor, as it  must be he who has the only authority to,  issue a directive banning books. 

Someone has mentioned to me that they were made aware of some “true crime” books being banned in prisons. I can not either confirm or deny this for the entire prison estate, but I can tell you that when a book was to be banned in my establishment,  a series of meetings took place and the opinions the library staff were taken into consideration. The list of banned books was extremely small and usually only contained those types of books that one would expect a prisoner not to be allowed. “The idiot’s guide to Prison Escape” might well be one that raised eyebrows (if there was any such type to be published). My prison tended not to stock a lot of medical self diagnosis books for fear that inmates would then diagnosis themselves with some tropical disease. The answer given by the staff would be to tell the inmate to seek professional medical advice. Not totally unfair, you might agree.

As is the case with public libraries, books are returned damaged, defaced or in some cases not returned at all. Therefore the library takes a decision not to issue some books for lending at all but one is able to read them as “reference books” in situ.


The prison library is a haven for most people and offers a myriad of services. One that particularly touched me was the Stories For Dads/Families program run by most prisons under “Storybook Dads. The Prison Service lays heavily the “maintaining family ties mantra” and this  allows the prisoner to record or in some cases send a DVD of themselves, reading a book for their child. What an excellent idea and allows the young ones left behind to see/ hear their relative on a regular basis. If you are reading this as a prisoner, ask your library if they offer this service and take advantage of it. The cost is minimal and it will bring joy to your loved one. If they don't offer it, harangue the staff until they do! If you are reading this as a relative of someone who is in prison ask them to find out about the service or check the following link .Storybookdads .

The library houses all the prison rules and many types of legal reference books that can assist a prisoner in his appeal, re-categorisation, adjudication etc. It is imperative that a prisoner is allowed sufficient access to it. To stop inmates accessing the library is therefore denying him access to justice. A serious infraction if ever there was one.

Books were an escape for me and I cherished the library. I could even learn to drive again by sitting mock tests on the computer! (My driving is just as bad). I could order new books from the best sellers list, I could get some books on CD if I desired and all with friendly banter from the staff (It takes a special type of person to be a prison librarian, let me assure you). You see it was just like a public library for me, I was served by civilian staff who called me Mr. and although when I left the library I was soon reminded that I was a prisoner, for those few brief moments I was in an oasis of normality and I was an individual not an inmate.

Prison libraries are a vital anchor  in a prisoner’s, turbulent, life and to treat them just as another department within the prison is shameful.

                                                                               "We read to know we are not alone."  - C.S. Lewis