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An island of support
By Judith Jordet, MLS
Published: 02/08/2009

0202lawbooks542510 Federal law mandates a law library (or equivalent) for inmates to access the courts, but how does the general reading library contribute to corrections? As a library coordinator at a corrections institution in Oregon, I believe a prison library is in the middle of the lake of inmate culture.

Depending on how the reading library is managed, it can be an island of healthy introspection or end up a neglected swamp discouraging success in correction programs. It is through collection development that the reading library can contribute to corrections and become a pro-social resource for inmates.

In his book, Crime and Coercion (St. Martin's Press, 2000), Mark Colin defines two major attitudes in prison management. One is punitive, insisting on obedience; the other is based on pro-social support by addressing the expressed needs of inmates to achieve the "consent of the governed."

The more punitive the approach, the more emphasis is placed on rewards and/or punishments. A pro-social approach emphasizes structuring inmates' time so they participate in pro-social activities, often in the form of rehabilitative programs or education.

If a prison has no vocational, mental health or drug programs, there are still pro-social inmate services that can serve as models. Social models are experienced through the recreation department, health care, the cafeteria, transitional services, the chapel, the law library and the general reading library.

Whether intended or not, by their very existence, these social-support mechanisms inform inmates. As library coordinator, my intention is to improve the general reading library to stand as a strong model of pro-social support by managing the books through a coherent collection development policy.

Benefits of Reading
The personal and social benefits of reading have been documented and are particularly valuable for inmates. Studies by Willie Van Peer in 1996 showed that "to read simulations in books is to set ourselves social problems, and practice on them."

Van Peer proved that exposure to books is a strong predictor of vocabulary, language use and general knowledge. He went on to argue convincingly that reading fiction in particular can help self-understanding because that genre often focuses on issues of identity. Self-understanding is an important element in changing ourselves, so "changes in selfhood can occur as a function of reading certain kinds of fiction."

In his book, The Effects of Reading Literature on Social Perception and Moral Self-Concept (Benjamin Press, 2000), J.F. Hakemulder described 54 studies in which "fictional narratives promoted moral development, improved empathy and changed norms, values and self-concepts."

He concluded that, "fiction encourages readers to take on the roles of characters in stories, and this makes them more empathetic." In other words, reading a sociology textbook about racism does not have the same impact in changing attitudes as reading a story that engages the imagination and promotes empathy with a character in the story.

Making Collection Choices
The general reading library is a powerful resource for change when its collection follows a logical policy. The books provided by the corrections library should support the programs offered at the institution, not work against them. A collection development policy should take into account the education programs, as well as recommendations for pro-social fiction from the drug and alcohol counselors.

Statistics on the inmate population can help identify the information needs of inmates rather than simply choosing popular books suitable for the general public. On an intuitive level, prison book collections gathered are intended for gender and age.

Does it not make sense to use inmate statistics to purposely guide the collection development? For example, the selection of books could take into consideration the reading level of its inmates. Oregon has an average reading level of tenth grade; at the same time, each institution has a record of how many inmates need Adult Basic Education and/or their GED. By supplying an adequate selection of young adult books, the general reading library can support the goals of education.

Just as an academic library chooses books that support the college curriculum, it is also important for a prison library to support the correctional institution’s programs. For example, Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is well written, entertaining, and sometimes identified as a classic of its time. It is a valuable book for the general public because it requires the reader to question the values of the status quo.

However, it glorifies drugs so it's not a choice that would support the goals of an institution that has drug and alcohol programs. Inmates can order for themselves such books, but to take up the time and organization of the prison general reading library doesn’t make sense.

Another example is the issue of suicide. Suicide is taken seriously in correctional culture, often being counted as a measure of institutional health; therefore it is in the best interests of the prison population to avoid themes that end with suicide as the only solution.

The book, Boy A, by Jonathan Trigells, is a powerful book about a young man on post-prison supervision who eventually seeks relief by suicide because he is overwhelmed by society's hatred for someone just released from prison. For the general public, this story may provide an opportunity for reflection and shifting public attitudes towards former inmates.

However, for an inmate population, the same story could be depressing with serious consequences. On the other hand, the story Wrist Slashers: A Love Story, may sound like it supports suicide, but it actually treats humorously serious choices, ends with second chances and offers hope for the two main characters.

It takes time, effort and space to manage a library collection, but it is time well spent for everyone. The quantity, diversity and quality of appropriate general reading books can insure the library is an island of social support contributing to corrections culture instead of a neglected swamp with little to offer.

Related resources:

For collection suggestions, visit The American Library Association’s Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions

Other articles by Jordet:


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