Prison Libraries and Access to Information
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Prison Libraries and Access to Information


There are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated within the United States. You may know someone who has been through the correctional system, or have seen aspects of prison life depicted in popular media. For the protection of correctional officers
and inmates alike, many items are considered contraband, such as drugs, weapons, or cell phones; and access to technology or outdoor physical activity is strictly monitored. Correctional facilities can
be isolating, scary, and monotonous places ⁠— and moreso when you consider one of the most controversial items to be banned from prisons: books. At first glance, prison libraries aren’t
so different from other types of libraries. They serve patrons, contain a mixture of
reference and circulating materials, and are managed by library staff. However, prison libraries face severe challenges, such as lack of budgets and understaffing, in addition to patrons lacking freedom to
visit their library at will. Censorship measures apply not just to materials in prison libraries, but also to gifts or donations which are sent to people in prison. Workers in mailrooms scan all incoming items for contraband content, handwritten notes, or materials which could be weaponized. This applies to personal gifts from friends and family, as well as materials sent from activist groups, such as Books to Prisoners, which answer letters from incarcerated persons by sending books in the mail, for free. Prison librarians also notarize documents,
supplement collections for those able to undertake undergraduate study, facilitate book clubs, and answer general reference questions. While the rules of access change from one institution to another, and are sometimes arbitrary, books are typically restricted
for three main reasons: 1. Physical Dimensions. Hardback and oversize materials can be repurposed as step-stools, weights, and even weapons. For this reason, many prisons only allow use of paperback books. 2. Condition. Mail and communications within prisons are heavily monitored, and this also extends to printed material. Books which contain bookplates, marginalia, or annotations are likely to be discarded, no matter how innocuous they may seem. 3. Content. Lastly, the content of materials is heavily
monitored. It is easy to see why prisons don’t allow
books about wilderness survival, orchestrating a heist, or makeshift weaponry. However, prisons have demonstrated an arbitrary approach to censorship, and routinely restrict content that is deemed too sexual, too “racially charged”, or too likely to incite violence. Examples of banned books include “Where’s Waldo?” (because it contains stickers), “Monty Python’s the Big Red Book” (because it contains nudity), and “The Color Purple”(which contains trauma and violent sex acts), and even a Dungeons & Dragons manual (because it threatens order and security). Genres of books which are frequently banned include atlases, law materials, drawing manuals, graphic novels, and dictionaries. The American Library Association supports free speech and the right for all people to have access to information, and has created the Prisoner’s Right to Read as an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Media attention, public pressure, and facilitated efforts from organizations such as the ACLU has overturned measures such as banning “The New Jim Crow” from New Jersey prisons, or the decision of New York State to limit access by adopting a Secure Vendor Program. However, if we are to uphold freedom of information, we must remain vigilant in challenging censorship laws which are arbitrary or which do not contribute to the safety of inmates or correctional workers.

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