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The Importance of a Library in a Prison
By Philip Ephraim, PhD, Corrections Librarian at State Correctional Institution, Graterford, PA
Published: 06/13/2011

Reaching for a book A good book is a good friend, teacher and company. The library, which is a center where good books and other information resources are made available for use, can build the emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of people who find themselves in incarceration or work in corrections. Good books bring the inmate or anyone else in contact with the minds and ideas of authors most people on the street are reading today. In so doing, an inmate is connected in real time to the global family of man, thus breaking the sense of isolation and banishment.

The State Correctional Institution at Graterford is located 31 miles west of Philadelphia. The facility, built in 1929, is Pennsylvania's largest maximum-security prison. The grounds include an extensive prison farm on 1,730 acres (7.0 km2); the 62-acre (250,000 m2) prison compound itself lies within 30-foot (9.1 m) high walls surmounted by nine manned towers. In 1989, an $80 million construction program was completed that added a new administration building, a 28-bed infirmary and 372 additional cells. Today it has about 3,000 inmates and 1200 employees.

Good books are fun. You can never read too much. And that is where the employees come in. There would be found something useful in our libraries for every one. To help prove this point, we might have a library week whereby every employee who visits the library and borrows any material will be rewarded with the coolest book marker in the whole wide world! But, hey, we don’t need a library week to get to the library. Library visit should be part of our everyday culture. I would suggest that we visit the library every time we visit the grocery. You know why? It is because while resources from the grocery feed the body, library resources deliver nourishment to the mind. And the mind is a terrible thing to waste or neglect. We need food both for the body and “for thought”. The library helps feed the total man. We are very much what we read (what occupies our thoughts) much as we are what we eat (what occupies our gut). Again, just as the quality and quantity of the food we eat impact the status of our physical health, an intellectually malnourished mind cannot be hoped to generate quality ideas!

In the prison, a good book will keep an inmate’s mind entertained and constructively engaged while he serves time. We all know that an idle mind is the devils workshop. A reading inmate will have little time to do the devil’s errands. Idleness and boredom lead to the design and experimentation with trouble. At that intellectual level, the library helps to promote peace and safety in our prison establishment. This fact has been established in researches conducted by Judith Jordet (1, 2, 3). In the library, an inmate can learn new skill set, like computer competence, and prepare himself for the world of work upon his re-entry into the society. He would find guides to continuing education after prison, US Occupational Outlook Handbook, ex-inmate guide to successful employment, and a list of companies offering a second chance and hiring ex-offenders. He could learn a new language, like Sanskrit, or learn to understand complex life phenomena as wars, marriage, why we lie, why do we dance, compassion and parenting. He could even embark on virtual environmental tourism by studying birds of the word! Here at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, the library will support an inmate who decides he wants to take a degree from either Villanova or Devry University or a GED from our school. Thus, the library helps in part to fulfill the mission statement of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which states:

"our mission is to protect the public by confining persons committed to our custody in safe, secure facilities, and to provide opportunities for inmates to acquire the skills and values necessary to become productive law - abiding citizens, while respecting the rights of crime victims" (4).

There are also great books, stories and biographies that demonstrate the triumph of human spirit over temporary adversities. This is an inspiration every inmate can use. In one word, our libraries here at SCI-Graterford provide employees with materials to relieve work stress and hone job skills and the general inmate population with novels, life skills books, comics, educational books, tools for legal research, photocopy services, daily newspapers and current magazines. In our libraries, an inmate can follow the events unfolding in far away Abbottabad, Pakistan, or enjoy pictures of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton as it happens in London. In the end, while they sit by here for any length of time, the world wouldn’t have to pass them by. They are part of the world.


1. Judith Jordet. The Prison Library as Pro-Social Institution 04/11/2011.

2. Judith Jordet. Prison Library as Cultural ConnectionThe . 04/25/2011

3. Judith Jordet. The Prison Library: Promoting Reading & Pro-Social Connection. 05/02/2011.

4. Jeffrey A Beard. Code of Ethics. ( DC-174. ) Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections. 2520 Lisburn Road, P.O. Box 598, Camp Hill, PA 17001-0598.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Philip Ephraim, is a Corrections Librarian, at the State Correctional Institution, in Graterford, PA. He has served on numerous library committees.

Other articles by Ephraim


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