When most people think about prison libraries today they most likely recall the 1995 movie, "The Shawshank Redemption" which revolved around the library of Maine's state prison from 1947 through the late1960's (Shawshank pg). The movie portrayed the evolution of the library during some twenty years, as it went from a small cramped room housing a meager selection of books to larger quarters with vast selections of books, music and educational materials (Shawshank pg). This evolution would not and could not have taken place if not for the relentless solicitations by the movie's main character, Andy Dufresne. His tireless efforts resulted in donations from various organizations (Shawshank pg). The movie was an accurate depiction of a typical prison library. Until the last century, most were non-existent and the few that did exist were poorly stocked. Due to the funding shortages that have always faced federal and state prisons, prison libraries, as in "Shawshank," rely heavily on donations from various charities and foundations. Moreover, just as in "Shawshank," prison libraries have become communal niches where inmates gather for entertainment, research, support groups and educational classes.
As grim as the conditions were portrayed at Main's state prison in the movie, "The Shawshank Redemption," they were actually several steps above the lifestyle of Main's original state prison. The Honorable Benjamin Greene and the Honorable Daniel Rose, following their research and investigations for the establishment of a state prison, issued the following report to the State Legislature on January 23, 1823:
That State Prisons should be so constructed that even their aspect might be terrific and appear like what they should be, dark and comfortless abodes of GUILT and WRETCHEDNESS; that no mode of punishment ever has been or ever can be adopted so good as CLOSE CONFINEMENT in a SOLITARY
CELL, in which, cut off from all hope of relief during the time for which the prisoner shall have been sentenced.... That, the convict shall be furnished with a hammock in which he may sleep, a block on which he may sit and with such coarse through wholesome food as may be suited to a person in a situation designed for grief and pentinaence and shall be favored with only such light from the firmament as to enable him to read the New Testament which shall be his sole companion and guide to a better life" (Main pg).
Most likely the Greene-Rose investigation included the Quaker experiment in Pennsylvania. In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Quaker who led reformers to lobby the Pennsylvania legislature for a state prison based on reform through solitude and reflection stated, "Let the avenue to this house be rendered difficult and gloomy by mountains and morasses. Let the doors be of iron, and let the grating, occasioned by opening and shutting them, be increased by an echo that shall deeply pierce the soul" (Walsh pg). Pennsylvania's Eastern State Prison was completed in 1836 and was the most expensive building in America, costing $772,600, and during the next 100 years became the model for more than 300 prisons worldwide (Walsh pg). Sadly, grim surrounding inside and out were the norm for prisons during the 1800's. An English Heritage book dedicated to the prison architecture of the Victorian era has been "deemed 'unsuitable' to be seen by prisoners, and is banned from prison libraries" in England (Smith pg). Eastern State was closed in 1971 and certified as a National Historic Landmark. Ironically, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the direct descendant of the Quaker reform organizations, uses the site for historic tours (Walsh pg). Today, Main's State Prison is host to various cultural and educational facilities including one of the best Law Libraries in the state (Main pg).
Prison libraries have gone through many changes through the centuries. In the 1830's, Massachusetts State Prison enlarged its library through generous philanthropists to such an extent that when a legislative committee visited in 1845, they were surprised at the quantity of books available to prisoners, remarking, "there are several hundred volumes of valuable and useful books" (Goldsmith 109). Many throughout history have championed the cause of prison libraries. Upon discovering inmates had no reading material, Linda Gilbert of Chicago established the first library in Cook County Jail in 1864 by donating over 4,000 miscellaneous volumes of literature. Gilbert then helped to establish libraries in every prison in Illinois as other services for prisoners as well. In 1872, Gilbert moved to New York City and in 1873 established the Gilbert Library and Prisoners' Aid Fund, competing with other agencies such as the Prison Association and the Women's Prison Association, supporting prison libraries and often offering employment to released prisoners (McHenry pg).
The 1977 landmark Supreme Court decision in Bounds v. Smith (430 U.S. 817) led to the establishment of law libraries in most major U.S. prisons (Prisoners' pg). The decision read "The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law" (Prisoners' pg). Most prisons opt for the law library over legal services. Initial start-up costs run between $60,000 and $70,000 per library for a basic core collection of state and federal materials and $8,000 to $10,000 for yearly upkeep costs (Prisoners' pg). A law library allows prisons to comply with the Supreme Court order by providing prisoners with a collection of books and other resources to conduct legal searches (Prisoners' pg). The American Association of Law Libraries, AALL, has compiled a minimum list of law books necessary to meet the adequacy requirement and is regularly updated and expanded (Prisoners' pg). In most prisons, "the law library and the general inmate library are managed as separate program areas but are often operating in the same space or in adjacent locations" (Prisoners' pg). Generally, a professional librarian supervises both library areas, however, in some prisons the law library is administered as a separate entity and staffed by a law librarian or non-librarian prison employee (Prisoners' pg). The majority of prisons employ inmates as law library clerks. The law library also serves as a place of operations for inmate para-legals (Prisoners' pg).
The Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions and the Prison Law Library Guidelines "call for separate operations of the prison law library and the general library" since each have different missions, "the law library provides 'access to the courts' and the general library serves informational, recreational and educational needs" (Prisoners' pg). Prison law libraries are usually the best available in any state.
Although, funding for prison libraries has fluctuated over the last several decades, the trend being to cut back on staff and stock or close the libraries altogether, there are still roughly a thousand libraries in U.S. prisons (Marshall pg). For prisoners, libraries are an invaluable part of prison life. Inmates, such as those at Maryland's Correctional Institute, say books help them escape mentally and provide sources to research their cases (Marshall pg). At Maryland, up to 200 books are processed each day. Brenda Vogel, coordinator of the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries for 20 years, says that "going to the library is the one prison activity that has no coercion involved" (Marshall pg). A century ago, inmates were lucky if they had the Bible or other religious material to read, today they may be reading anything from Stephen King to John Grisham (Stasio pg). In Belfast Ireland, the IRA's Maze Prison library offers volumes on "Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, Margaret Thatcher and Ian Paisley, Cuba, China, Engles, winemaking and Judo" (English 28). "IRA prisoners used prison to read, to engage in political debate," much like and "alternative version of university" (English 28). Moreover, many prisons use the library as a neutral place for grievance assistance and support (All 217). Inmates who are studying for their GED's or other educational programs use the prison library to work on homework assignments (Hegeman C10).
The governance model for prison libraries may be in the form contracted services between public libraries and/or institutions of higher learning, operation solely by the prison authority, and formal or informal arrangements by volunteer groups" (Lehmann pg). Most prison libraries operation under a combination of these service methods.
About ten years ago, Rhea Joyce Rubin developed a library planning model specifically for prison libraries. It has since been used in several states, including Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Rubin's model evolved from the "Planning and Role Setting in Public Libraries" and "Output Measure for Public Libraries" (Lehmann pg). Rubin's Planning Process for Wisconsin Institution Libraries: A Workbook (1997) identifies the following possible roles for the prison library: "popular reading materials center, independent learning center, formal education support center, leisure and recreation activities center, legal information center, treatment program support center, information center on outside community, personal retreat center, staff research center, and school curriculum support center" (Lehmann pg). The 1995 "IFLA Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners," the "U.S. Library Standards for Adult Correctional…