Monday, November 5, 2007

Information Needs of Prisoners: A Review of the Literature Part 2 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 1
Part 3

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

Standards and Guidelines

The American Library Association’s Library standards for adult correctional institutions (1992) is the benchmark for establishing and maintaining prison library services. It outlines access, minimum standards for staffing, budget, facility size, and collection—elements that are necessary for the provision of acceptable library services in correctional facilities. Prison librarians aim to emulate the public library’s role as a community information center, a formal education support center, an independent learning center, a popular materials library, and a reference library. However, services and facilities vary among and within states, depending on politics, the administration’s philosophy, budget, and the nature of the institution. Certain prison facilities are concerned about complying with federal guidelines for access to the courts and have little interest in general library services. Others, recognizing the importance of rehabilitation for successful reentry into the community, have supported library collections and services that encourage information seeking and reading for pleasure or for self-help.

Widening the standards focus outside of the United States, the prisons studied in Wales use the Library Association’s (1981) Guidelines for library provision in penal establishments, although Lithgow and Hepworth (1993) warn that librarians must move beyond guidelines to universal performance measures. Curry, Wolf, Boutilier and Chan (2003) report that Canadian prison libraries have no official guidelines or standards and abide by region- or institution-specific guidelines.

User Satisfaction

Lithgow and Hepworth’s study revealed the difficulties associated with conducting research in a prison setting and showed that many indicators frequently used to assess library performance are inappropriate for a prison library. A survey of library opening hours is meaningless, for example, if inmates are allowed only one 20-minute visit per week. They suggested that customized indicators, which take into account the daily prison regime, are needed. Lithgow and Hepworth also discussed the challenges of prison library reference service, particularly the importance of serving all inmates in a non-judgmental manner because they can feel vulnerable or intimidated especially if literacy is an issue. Their study indicated that 81% of prison library users would use the public library upon release.

User satisfaction was also increased by collections both developed by and representative of minorities. Haymann-Diaz (1989) explored ethnic collections created by minority inmate library assistants in the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, finding that the core criterion for the collections were materials that emphasized unification between the historical and cultural backgrounds of various nationalities considered African-American and Hispanic. Acquiring books suggested by prisoners and balancing between educational and recreational materials amplified the usage and satisfaction levels of the facility’s inmates, as well as empowering the library assistants who developed the collections.

A 1996 survey of Ohio prison libraries by Liggett demonstrated that prison libraries are diverse, even within one state. Liggett found that Ohio’s federal prisons vary greatly regarding space per inmate, budgets, access to the library, available materials, librarian qualifications, and categories of censored materials. Despite their diversity, Ohio prison libraries are used by a large percentage of their population, and the inmates check out a large number of materials. One argument advanced by the study is that prison libraries should have a higher profile because they exhibit library use rates that are considerably higher (65% of the prison population) than those of public libraries (42% of the national population).

Stevens’ (1994) research on the role of the prison library in the reform and rehabilitation process identified a number of areas in which the work of the prison library can have an important influence. He argued that much of the information held in a prison library could be used by inmates to have a direct and positive influence on their future behavior. Perhaps most crucially, providing the information relating to the offending behavior patterns of inmates is of more importance than trying to address their “everyday problems.” Interestingly enough, he found that the length of sentence and the time left to serve affect the inmates’ information needs. He also reported that the nature of the administration at the institution determines user satisfaction. For instance, a higher emphasize on security will restrict the inmate’s opportunities for access information.

Stevens discovered that some inmates perceive that formal channels of information, like prison libraries, are ineffective in satisfying their information needs and may rely on informal information networks among inmates themselves instead. He explained, “There is easier access to fellow prisoners, other inmates may possess exclusive information, they may offer affective support and they are perceived as more reliable and trustworthy than staff” (p. 33). This critical attitude may influence both user needs and ultimately user satisfaction more than any other factor considered in these reviewed works.


Although The Standards assert the prisoner’s right to read and non-censorship, except for obvious security and pornographic issues, many librarians face scrutiny by prison personnel who try to impose restrictions on certain library materials. This, in turn, impounds the prisoner’s user needs by obstructing or restraining important information.

Bowden (2003) conducted a nationwide survey of 207 state prisons, representative of the national population in terms of size, security level, and sex distribution. In an open-ended question about restricted resources, she noticed the following trends, representative of censorship queries in the other studies reviewed. Pornography (mentioned by 43% of respondents) was the most banned material, followed by weapons manufacturing (31%), violence, martial arts, drug manufacturing, and prison escapes (10% each). Receiving smaller percentages were literature about hate groups, gangs, homosexuals, survivalism, revolution, the occult, organized crime, true crime, and computer access, as well as road maps and medical information. Curry et al.’s survey of Canada’s 51 minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security federal prisons reported similar conclusions to Bowden, with the additional ban of manuals about the internet and home repairs. Bowden discovered that even though librarians order items, the administration has the ultimate decision regarding acquisition. This finding was echoed in every work in this review that queried on censorship.

Besides subject matter, some materials were restricted because of their physical nature, such as hardbound books and computer discs (Bowden). Jones (2004) surveyed public libraries that provided services to juvenile correctional facilities and reported that magazines and spiral-bound books were banned at some institutions because the staples and spirals could be used as weapons. Despite the restrictions on theme or physicality, prison library users mentioned in Jones study reported a wish to use libraries on the outside, improved reading levels and attitudes towards reading in an independent study.

Surprisingly, Curry et al. were the only research study coordinators to ask about the appeals process for challenged materials. Forty-one percent said the process was available, and 24% said it was not. The rest checked “unknown” or provided no answer, which is troubling because it indicated that the staff was uncertain about procedures in this controversial subject area. It also pointed to a possible tension between the relationship between the administration and librarians regarding censored materials.

For instance, Kozup’s (1992) case study of three prison librarians, which analyzed their methods of meeting the needs of prison library users, reported a procedure in which items were canceled from an order without the librarian being notified. Despite an agreement that items were not to be challenged until they arrived in the institution, materials continued to be canceled—without notifying the librarian or being viewed by authorities. Similarly, Jones noted that a librarian reported that a guard from the facility examined materials and decided whether the inmate could have it and other staff members removed items from prisoners that they found personally offensive.

Security is a shared concern between librarians and the prison administration, and the restriction of some items, such as pornography and escape literature, seems reasonable. However, Bowden found that in some prison libraries, medical literature is banned so that prisoners cannot fake illnesses, yet wondered how ailing prisoners could have their user needs filled. Bowden wrote, “For librarians, this is an example of the inherent conflict between the professional mandate to provide access to information and restrictive institutional requirements” (p. 10).

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