Sunday, November 11, 2007

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

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


Studies that examined technology in correctional libraries found that prisoners have access to computers with legal, reference, and educational software, but they usually do not have internet access due to safety concerns. This means that a prisoner with a long incarceration period, who will return to the community, will be at a disadvantage in seeking critical information. Shirley (2003), in an online questionnaire of 110 state prison libraries examining prisoner usage, service, programs, and collections, reported success with a CD-ROM in Maryland prisons that explained the internet and its practical uses to inmates. The purpose was not only to increase their knowledge of this vital resource, but also to temper unrealistic ideas about what a librarian can and cannot find when the prisoners submitted information requests.

LaPoint’s 1997 survey of Ohioan prisoner access and usage of electronic resources described general operational procedures and current standards. Prisoners were able to fulfill their user needs through OPAC, CD-ROMs, modems, monitored internet access, cooperative networks and interlibrary loan activity, and periodicals. LaPoint found that 81% of the librarians she surveyed said they had difficulty answering reference questions because of the lack of electronic resources, and 95% believed security could still be maintained with improved, accessible electronic resources. One librarian stated, “in this system, standard library procedures are difficult to implement. Automaton and information technologies [are] almost impossible to integrate into daily operations. I could dramatically increase service, reduce costs, and integrate into a local network if I was allowed” (p. 20). LaPoint argued that the benefits of electronic implementation would increase inmate user needs by replacing printed materials, which can be damaged or stolen, providing access to more info sources for staff and inmates, as well as saving costs, the need for storage, and librarians’ time.

Further Research

Future studies should continue to focus on user satisfaction, censorship, and technology. To improve user satisfaction, Wales should update or adapt its own set of prison guidelines with performance measures. Similarly, Canada should develop its own national set of standards and guidelines to measure its service. As censorship can be an issue between librarians and prison administration, Kozup suggested a study that investigates the relationship between these camps to determine any causal relationship that alters the censorship of materials. Since the rate of technology continues to grow at an astounding rate, studies looking at technology can always be repeated in three to five years to gauge improvement in meeting the user needs of inmates. These are but a few suggestions for further research and documentation in these vast subject areas.


As library users, prisoners are disadvantaged by a disproportionately high level of illiteracy, lack of education, insufficient vocational skills, and a high rate of mental illness. One can safely say that incarcerated persons have a large number of unmet needs, which translate into a high demand for information, learning materials, and self-improvement resources; the library, in cooperation with other prison programs, can play a vital role in meeting these needs. Inmates who want to use their time constructively are likely to become avid library users. As release nears, the prison library can provide them with a wealth of job-related materials as well as community information that may help them survive the first critical months on the outside. Prisoners user needs, from initial lock-up to final discharge, can be met through implementation of the guidelines outlined in Library standards for adult correctional institutions. More than any other group, inmates, who have so many privileges stripped from them, uphold the right to have their user needs fulfilled.


American Library Association. (1992). Library standards for adult correctional institutions. Chicago: Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies.

Bowden, T. S. (2003). A snapshot of state prison libraries with a focus on technology. Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian, 21(2), 1-12.

Curry, A., Wolf, K., Boutilier, S., &. Chan, H. (2003). Canadian federal prison libraries: National survey. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 35, 141-152.

Haymann-Diaz, B. (1989). Establishing a selection process model for an ethnic collection in a prison library. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 8, 33-49.

Jones, P. (2004). Reaching out to young adults in jail. Young Adult Library Services, 3 (1), 16-18.

Kozup, P. C. (1992). Major issues in prison librarianship: A case study of three libraries. Unpublished masters thesis, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.

LaPoint, V. A. (1997). Electronic resources in Ohio prison libraries. Unpublished masters thesis, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.

Library Association (1981). Library Association guidelines for library provision in penal department establishments. 2nd ed. London: Library Association

Liggett, J. M. (1996). Survey of Ohio’s prison libraries. Journal of Interlibrary Loan, 7(1), 31-45.

Lithgow, S., & Hepworth, J. B. (1993). Performance measurement in prison libraries: Research methods, problems, and perspectives. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 25, 61-69.

Shirley, G. L. (2003). Correctional libraries, library standards, and diversity. Journal of Correctional Education, 54, 70-74.

Stevens, T. (1994). The information needs of prisoners: A study of three penal establishments. Library and Information Research News, 18, 29-33.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2003). Tables No. 348, 349, 350. In U.S. Census Bureau. Statistical abstracts of the United States: 2003 (pp. 218-219). Washington, DC: GPO

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