Thursday, November 1, 2007

Information Needs of Prisoners: A Review of the Literature Part 1 of 3

This post is part of a series exploring prisoners as a user group with distinct information needs, beginning with a review of the literature. Please click below to read further:

Information Needs of Prisoners: A Review of the Literature
Part 2
Part 3

Information Needs of Prisoners: Annotated Bibliography
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still an absorbed.
Germaine Greer, 1989

In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all.
Eldridge Cleaver, 1968


This paper presents a literature review of user studies conducted on the information needs of prison inmates. Using primarily the American Library Association’s Library standards for adult correctional institutions as an outline for professional library service in an institutional setting, this review of literature examines issues concerning user satisfaction, censorship, and technology. Of the prison system, George Bernard Shaw once wrote that there were three official objectives: “vengeance, deterrence, and reformation of the criminal, only one is achieved; and that is the one which is nakedly abominable.” Yet he overlooked the prison library, a means of reformation, empowerment, and even entertainment to its patrons. As a correctional library user stated, “In a prison, one of the few things we rely on is getting the truth, the right information” (Stevens, 1994, p. 32). In this search for truth—for survival—inmates use the library with a determined purpose, one in which librarians must uphold in terms of professional service.

Characterization of the User Group

According to a recent 2003 survey of the prison population by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 3.1% of the adult population in the United States is either on probation, in jail, in prison, or on parole. The prison population is over 1.3 million, more than four times what it was in 1980. The population is overwhelmingly (93%) male and contained a disproportionate number of minorities. The largest demographic group is black and Hispanic males aged 20 to 39 (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). In general, the prison population is less educated than the general population, but one out of every ten state prison inmates and one of every six federal prison inmates have some college education (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics). The prison population is a microcosm of the general population from which it is drawn and can be divided along many different lines for the purposes of analyzing information needs.

Scope of Literature Reviewed

A majority of the studies were conducted in the 1990s, with several in the early 2000s, and one from 1989. Geographically, the studies were conducted mostly in America, with three inquiries carried out in Ohio, due in part to Kent State’s esteemed library and information science program; other studies focused on prison library users in Canada and Wales. The articles were located in diverse databases, including ERIC, Library and Information Science Abstracts, Library Literature and Information Science, and the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Two studies were masters theses; two each were from Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian and the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. Other publications included the Journal of Correctional Education, the Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Library and Information Research News, and Young Adult Library Services.


Questionnaires by work reviewed, year, geographic scope, and response rate:
Bowden, 2003, US, 44% (200 of 455)
Curry et al., 2003, Canada, 73% (37 of 51)
Jones, 2004, US, 36% (16 of 44)
LaPoint, 1997, Ohio, 76% (22 of 29)
Liggett, 1996, Ohio, 57% (12 of 21)
Shirley, 2003, US, 32% (35 of 110)

Interviews by work reviewed, year, geographic scope, and details:
Haymann-Diaz, 1989, New York, 2 inmates at 1 site
Kozup, 1992, Ohio, 3 staff at 3 sites
Lithgow, 1993, Wales, 270 inmates, approx. 42 staff at 6 sites
Stevens, 1994, Wales, 36 inmates, 24 staff at 3 sites

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