|E-books in a Correctional Setting: a niche market|
|By Judith Jordet, MLS|
My correctional supervisor is open to the use of new technology to solve problems and improve prison operations. One innovation was to hire me, a librarian with a master’s degree, to be a prison library coordinator. When I asked him why he hired me, he replied that during the interview I was aware that inmates in segregation will flush paperback books down the toilet in order to flood the cell. He continued, not only was I cognizant of that possibility, I suggested providing duplicate copies rather than only exposing the worst titles to that dreadful demise.
Two years after I was hired, the prison library had expanded to 6,000 donated books. Many titles had to be weeded and inventoried to diversify the collection so that it spread over 40 genres with Mystery, Suspense, Fantasy heavily weighted and Drama and Philosophy lightly weighted. My vision was to add 300 books to the “pod libraries” on each of the eight dormitory units. My supervisor’s vision was even greater. He suggested replacing paper books with e-books (except, of course, in segregation).
I immediately saw the advantage of e-books in the prison setting. If each inmate could have a library of over 1,000 titles in one small e-book reader, it would cut down on hiding contraband among the books (such as sandpaper to erase their uniform logo), remove the unsanitary habit of reading books in the rest-room, cut down on repairing books (averaging 20% or over 1,200 books destroyed each year), free up space by limiting the 3 X 8 foot long bookshelves that only hold 640 books for 100 inmates in each unit, encourage struggling readers to listen to a book while reading the text on the screen, and, finally, allow anyone to increase the size of the font so LARGE PRINT will never be limited to a few titles!
However, my research revealed problems that only a niche market can solve. I studied the Kindle, Sony and Nook e-book readers; all of them are equipped to access the Internet. I wish an e-book reader existed that only accessed the millions of legitimately published books (rather than anonymous individuals self-publishing on the Internet, not accountable to anyone even for spelling or grammar). Imagine an e-book reader that specialized in accessing books by title, author, subject, date, publisher, language, format (audio, digital) and/or keyword!
I called Amazon to see if it could sell Kindles to Corrections without direct access to Wikipedia. No, it is a package deal. Also, all three e-book readers include email and/or blogging. It is possible to provide email to inmates in some circumstances and maybe someday even the Internet, but providing Internet to an inmate along with two-way email is not an easy combination to supervise for public safety.
If I had my way, one of these e-book companies would be willing to test market e-book readers to the 969 minimum security prisons in the U.S. by offering ten e-book readers per institution for lease. Each e-book reader would be loaded with a core collection of 208 free titles (one title per week for four years, the approximate median sentence in Oregon's minimum security prisons). Imagine for example, these established authors…
After the first ten e-book readers are leased as a test market, expand the market by offering these niche market e-book readers for sale on commissary. Each e-book reader would cost the Department of Corrections (DOC) $189. The device could hold at least 1,460 titles (one title per day for four years). It could be sold on the commissary for less than an 8” digital television ($245). Then inmates could purchase additional e-book titles for $1.00 each from a bulk purchased by DOC of 4,000 popular titles in 47 different genres. Under supervision, inmates who qualify (including mandatory sentenced inmates) could shop once per week to purchase newer titles from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Any book prohibited by DOC could have a record of exactly what regulation justified the denial.
Also, imagine the collection development data. Without keeping track of inmate identity, it could be possible to survey inmate reading habits such as favorite authors, favorite genres and reading rate. I am not saying this is the best way to provide reading material, but it would also not be impossible, even with limited funding.
I am thankful to work for a supervisor with vision and openness to use new technology to solve problems and improve the lives of inmates. In times of significant budget cuts, prison library staff needs to think creatively about how best to encourage literacy in the inmate population. I envision a day when each inmate will have a library of 1,001 book titles stored in one e-book reader by their bunk, opening a window onto the world.
Editors Note: Corrections.com author Judith Jordet graduated with Masters of Library Science in 2000, she worked as a government documents librarian and taught Library Skills at Central Oregon Community College. In 2007 Jordet became the full time Library Coordinator in the Oregon Department of Corrections. 70% of her job is as a law librarian. She is also in charge of the general reading collection in eight "Pod Libraries", one for each unit in the Correctional Institution where she works. Her passion for inmate literacy motivates her to explore ways to promote to the correctional profession, the importance of managing a library among the inmate population, rather than merely supplying "books on shelves". She shares the perspective of Stanton Samenow on understanding chronic criminality and Mark Colvin on the importance of institutional pro-social support through the prison library.
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