Libraries are one of the most highly-prized places within prisons, but most prison libraries in Australia are severely underfunded and under resourced.
All Australian adult prisons are required to provide some sort of library service to their inmates. Libraries are important to prisoners during their time in prison and later when they are readjusting to life after prison. But despite the benefits they offer, most libraries within our prison system are rarely funded or staffed by library professionals, and their collections are generally built on donations rather than in an attempt to meet the information and recreation needs of their users.
Prisoners are using their libraries to help fill in extensive periods of unstructured time, to help build communities within prison and to provide opportunities for prisoners to make choices for themselves in an environment where most choices are taken away.
One of the greatest benefits of using a library in prison is the support they provide in connecting prisoners with the outside world. Prisoners will often try to read the same books as a loved one on the outside so they have something to talk about during visits. Some prison libraries include children’s picture books that inmates who are parents can read to their children during visits. Just being able to access a newspaper in the prison library can keep inmates in touch with the communities into which the vast majority of them will return, and the news of the world more broadly.
As inmates transition back into the community, public libraries can begin to play a role in their lives beyond prison. The Judy Lazarus Transition Centre in inner Melbourne houses male adult prisoners nearing the end of their sentences who are able to access the community to undertake training, employment, education, family visits and to also visit the North Melbourne Public Library. Once in the library, residents are able to access all available resources and to take part in offered programs.
This arrangement with the library is not a new one, but these types of arrangements do require more support to improve their effectiveness. In Australia, more research is needed to determine how library programs and services can best meet the needs of the prisoners. Once a stronger understanding of what is needed from a public library to best support people exiting prison is developed, this needs to be shared with other public libraries to guide them in supporting men and women re-entering their communities from other correctional facilities.
One of the major barriers to successful reintegration into the community after prison is the availability of housing. Many prisoners are released into homelessness, resulting in a much higher chance of reoffending and returning to prison as people struggle to support themselves. Again, public libraries can play a role in supporting recently-released prisoners and others experiencing homelessness.
In what is now a common practice in many American city libraries, the City of Melbourne Library Service has hired a social worker who is based in the library’s busy CBD branch and works to help library users who are experiencing homelessness and other experiences of poverty. The social worker helps to place these people into temporary accommodation and onto permanent housing wait lists. They also connect them to healthcare and food providers, often making connections to services for individuals who are unable to do this for themselves.
Feedback from people being helped by the library social worker has revealed that they are more inclined to seek help from a support person in the library than from an official service provider as they have a high level of trust in library staff and see public libraries as welcoming and safe spaces for them to visit.
Libraries on both sides of prison walls are vital to the support and assistance of prisoners as they live their lives in prison and re-join society as one of our most vulnerable community groups.
This topic will be explored further during a special show on 2MCE radio on Friday 11 September from 5.30pm to 6pm for Social Sciences Week. The show, Information & Society: Empowering Access, will feature a number of academics from the School of Information Studies discussing topics related to the value of libraries and archives, open information and information literacy in a variety of settings for diverse communities.
During the broadcast, a live Q&A will be available on the School of Information Studies’ Facebook page.