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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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April 2008 Volume 6(2)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Opinion: prison libraries

Could we reach further?

Prison libraries in Scotland serve one of the hardest to reach user groups. Library professionals have a lot of work to do in developing services for them, says Alan Stanley.

For some the idea that prisoners should have libraries with good collections, a range of information services and professional, knowledgeable, helpful staff provokes the derision once reserved for colour televisions in cells. Recently I wrote a dissertation intended to discuss collection development policy and practice in these services in Scotland. In the end I found myself discussing why collection development was impossible in most Scottish prison libraries.

Every prison in Scotland has an obligation to provide a library service to its population. It is largely up to the governor of each individual prison what this provision actually consists of. This has resulted in each library service developing to a large degree in isolation. This means that prison library services today vary enormously in quality. They range from small collections of second-hand fiction housed in a cupboard to smart, modern libraries with professional staff overseeing reading development and confidence-building programmes and playing valuable educational and social roles within their prison.

The majority of libraries in prisons in Scotland are staffed by prison officers without library training. They maintain access to resources but lack professional knowledge. They supervise the library service around their other commitments and can be re-deployed away from the library at short notice. There are no definitive guidelines for running a library service in a Scottish prison. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has worked to develop guidelines but the finalisation and implementation of these has stalled.

Many prison inmates have limited reading experience. The SPS estimated in 2002 that “12% of prisoners screened can barely read at all and 25% lack functional literacy”. Joe Levenson, Policy Officer with the Prison Reform Trust, has suggested that “65% of prisoners have literacy and numeracy levels so low they are ineligible for 96% of jobs”. Criminologists often connect crime with the inability to communicate and interact with others, whether verbally or in writing. Librarians can help: improving information literacy and the leisure reading habits of the inmates can dramatically improve their prospects. This is already being done in some Scottish prisons. At the inspirational libraries in HMPs Barlinnie and Perth, staff are determined to provide the best services to their users they can. Both these libraries provide excellent models of good practice for Scottish prison libraries. HMP Perth enjoys an excellent partnership with Perth and Kinross Council and takes full advantage of the skills and resources available through the first-rate council library service.

One development made possible by this partnership is the ‘Dear Dad’ initiative. A children’s librarian from Perth and Kinross Council visits the prison library with a range of reading material for Dads to record themselves reading for the benefit of their children at home. The children’s librarian advises the readers in selecting suitable material and delivering an effective reading. Carnegie (formerly Lauder) Learning Centre then helps the reader in designing and producing an attractive cover for the CD. This is the sort of project that can act as a goal for the developing reader, an achievement for readers to aspire to during the long and frustrating hours they spend struggling to improve their reading. The ‘Dear Dad’ project reveals to them one way literacy can directly improve their lives and the lives of their children. It may also improve the image of the library within the prison.

There is a huge appetite in prisons for reading material, an appetite prison managements are happy to meet, not least as part of their behaviour management strategy. And a good library service can go further. Librarians I spoke to told me that inmates were always keen to discuss and recommend books to one another and provide the type of peer support a community-based reader development librarian would envy.

So how do we ensure that good library services are available to inmates wherever they are? Within the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) there is a desire to develop the services but the strain on resources and their place in the SPS’s pecking order appear to be stronger than the existing will to improve the quality.

The work of prison libraries needs to be better understood, more supported, and more appreciated. We as professionals need to do more for this sector. We need to write more articles; we need to explore more the opportunities for partnership and find out how to market community libraries to ex-offenders; and information students need to ask more questions, and use work placement opportunities to explore the work being done. If we believe that library and information services can contribute to a range of communities then we must count prisons as one of those communities.

The vast majority of those in prisons will re-enter society. Should they have had good experiences with the library inside, they may well become regular users of community libraries. Librarians talk a great deal about reaching out to those who don’t use libraries. The prison library may represent a real opportunity for librarians to reach out to one of those groups.

Alan Stanley is a recent graduate of the University of Strathclyde’s MSc in Information and Library Studies. He is currently job hunting in Berlin.
Read the related article from Cathy Kearney, Assistant Director, CILIPS/SLIC, on developments in the area of prison libraries.


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Information Scotland Vol. 6(2) April 2008

© Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
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Last updated: 16-Jul-2008