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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

Instilling skills for life

Cathy Kearney sets prison libraries in Scotland in context, outlining the hard work going on, which has a particular emphasis on education and information literacy.

The prison library sector is an area of provision which features rarely in the pages of Information Scotland and it is encouraging to note that students and new professionals are giving the subject serious consideration and thought. In Scotland there is a small but committed group of information professionals working to deliver services to offenders and it is worth setting Alan Stanley’s article in context by exploring the extremely challenging circumstances in which these colleagues work.

Prisons are governed by the Prisons (Scotland) Act 1989, which provides the framework for the operation of prisons, and Young Offenders Institutions (YOI). Responsibility for management of prisons rests with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) which is accountable to the Scottish Government. Rule 76(2) of the Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Rules 1994 states: “The Governor shall make arrangements for lending library services for the use of prisoners which take into account so far as is reasonably practicable their educational, informational and recreational interests.”

As Alan points out, although every prison in Scotland is obliged to provide a library service, the interpretation of this obligation can vary widely. For example, HMP Barlinnie is the only establishment to employ a qualified librarian while HMP Edinburgh and Perth enjoy a close working relationship with the local authority provider.

What does the community profile of a prison population look like? Scotland’s prisons and their population are not homogenous. In 2005/6 there was a rise in the Scottish prison population to a record annual daily average of 6,857 reaching a peak of 7,094 in March 2006 (SPS Annual Report and Accounts 2005/6) but behind this statistic lies a microcosm of social exclusion. About 80% of all prison sentences are for six months or less. One quarter of those in prison have below functional levels of literacy and 33% have problems with basic numeracy. Two thirds are unemployed and three quarters leave with no job to go to. Drugs and alcohol will have played a significant role in the lives of many, as will mental health problems. Levels of suicide pose a serious problem in Scottish prisons as does overcrowding. Around 70% of those who offend will have been in care.

The Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) has been working with the Scottish Prison Service for almost 10 years to raise the profile of prison library services and has funded consultancy and innovative projects to help achieve this. For example, ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ was a project which encouraged offenders to share books with their children through recording themselves reading a book to video. The project was acclaimed for its impact on offenders by providing support to them in their use of the library and relationship with prison staff. The raised profile of library services through this project enabled SLIC to set up a working party in 2003.

Membership was drawn from a range of SPS staff including depute governors, literacy specialists and prison officers to progress development of a prison libraries framework. A key strategy for SLIC and the working group was to emphasise the educational role of libraries as well as the need for prison libraries to embrace the social inclusion agenda. This approach was underpinned by the SPS inclusion policy, ‘Learning, Skills and Employability’. The policy recognised that learning can take place in a range of settings and contexts and set out broad aims for prison libraries upon which the working group were able to build.

SLIC was keen to ensure that libraries were available and equipped to support and extend the formal learning already taking place by offering reader development, basic skills support and learning advice, information and guidance. The working party were united in the belief that information literacy is a key skill for life and that reader development activities can contribute to rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending. These views were confirmed by visits to prisons south of the border such as Haverigg staffed by the award-winning Chris Billings.

The group offered some key principles for consideration by the SPS Board:

When the working party proposals were presented to the SPS Board, resources were under severe pressure by a rising prison population, the requirement for prisons, in common with other public services, to find 5% efficiency savings and the priority to end ‘slopping out’ by installing night sanitation facilities for prisoners. Consequently, there was little hope of our proposals being adopted in full.

Nevertheless, SLIC continues to advocate adoption of the prison libraries framework as part of a partnership approach to reduce re-offending and is optimistic that our proposals can be re-presented for discussion with the Scottish Government within the context of the Criminal Justice Plan.
Read the related article from Alan Stanley is a recent graduate of the University of Strathclyde’s MSc in Information and Library Studies.


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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