On Sunday night, I was sat pondering the week to come. I thought the defining moment for this week would without doubt be attending my first professional event, a talk by Allan Foster, hosted by SLA Europe in Manchester. The event was great, and I really enjoyed it (a blog post relating to it may appear later in the week some time). However, yesterday a group of students on the MA Librarianship course (myself included) headed over to a privately run category B prison for a tour of their library. Once I had time to recoup at the end of the day, I realised that the trip had ousted my first professional event from its spot as moment of the week, and I set about writing a pun-titled post to that effect.
The purpose of the tour was to gain a sense of how a library fits into everyday prison life and the role that it plays in rehabilitation. Upon arrival we were checked in and collected by the Library Assistant. We were then taken past numerous fences and locked doors to the prison library which sat in the same block as many educational facilities such as ESOL and an arts and media suite. Once in the library, we all stood round waiting for the librarian, looking “scared s**tless” according to one passer-by.
The location of the library itself interested me, as much of the reading I had come across emphasised how important it was for the library to differentiate itself from educational programmes, preferably by locating itself in a different block. This is to help prisoners see the library as a neutral space away from judgement, and the librarian as an approachable person, not another prison guard. This seemed less of an issue as here as some education took place on the prisoners’ wings- thereby reducing the likelihood of the library becoming entangled with the negative images of education many inmates hold- but the proximity of it to many classrooms still surprised me. It serves as another good illustration of how library literature often focuses on ideals rather than practical realities.
The library itself was relatively small, certainly nowhere near as big as I was expecting. The range of material was very much directed towards fictional crime, mystery, and thriller books. There was a modest reference section and an average range of non-fiction material. We were shown their range of foreign language material, which looked impressive, although when speaking to foreign language inmates later that day most of them said they read the newspapers far more than the books. For those reading regularly in their own tongue, a supply of fresh foreign language material will always be difficult to attain. This problem can usually be solved through inter-library loans and stock rotation, but the prison was run by a government contractor meaning that the library was not linked to the local library network. Consequently, these facilities were unavailable, although the librarian said she always considered requests for books and would purchase them should they also meet the needs of the population at large. Stock selection also seemed to suffer heavily from censorship, something our lectures have taught us to fight against as much as possible, where it is appropriate to do so. The provision of materials appeared to pander to the needs of the prison Directors, not the inmates, to ensure that the prison received positive press- true crime books were banned following comments in the press that they encouraged gang culture and violence. This seemed an odd and ill informed decision. There was no move to ban or censor murder, thriller or horror fiction by the prison, but I suppose the removal of certain books helps to please the newspapers and dispel the Daily Mail’s “Holiday Camp Prisons”, however wrong it might be.
The primary problem that I could therefore see with the prison library was its lack of links to the Public Library Authority. It felt disconnected from a wider range of materials and, most importantly, from the “Guidelines for Prison Libraries”. I couldn’t help but feel that being connected to a public library would have helped to dramatically improve the provision of materials available to inmates (a quick aside here: this won’t get better if they close public libraries. Go and have a look at Voices for the Library and follow them on Twitter @UKpling). It may have also placed the librarian in a better position with more support to fight the censorship imposed on the library.
To prevent this from becoming too downbeat, I’d like to end on a few positive aspects that I observed. Whilst we were there, “Vulnerable Prisoners” (those over 60) came to use the library. Through watching the way in which they used the materials we saw that a great deal of use was made of the fiction section, and they all seemed to have a good rapport with the librarian, indicating frequent use. We were also told of the “Young Offenders” in the prison, who are often uninterested in reading but see the library as a positive space in the prison. It is this kind of contact with a library space that will hopefully encourage them to see the library not just as a place for books and silence, but as a space for thought, discussion and interaction with others.
This is but a mere fraction of what we saw during the day and my opinion of how prisoners are rehabilitated has been transformed by several first-hand accounts of inmates’ experiences, but I was left thinking the library was very restricted. There is a lot of work to be done in prison libraries, and their librarians are certainly at a disadvantage: there are many restraints, constant battles against censorship issues, and difficulties in contacting a support network (no readily available internet access=no twitter!). Despite these, I’m still sure changes are possible. I think that a lot could be learnt from the way in which public libraries have advocated and marketed their services of late; after all, there is a captive audience waiting to be converted to the cause and wealth of opportunities that libraries can offer! Obviously, my opinion was of just one prison library, and I’m sure those connected to their Public Library Authority will have different strengths and weaknesses. Initiatives such as the Writers In Prison Network and the Storybook Dads and Mums project (of which there was a version of in the prison we visited) do great work, but I feel the library needs to make itself more clearly associated with them and stand up for all the hard work its librarians (and stock!) do for those inside.