10 U.S. Prisons With Impressive Libraries

by Staff Writers

Prison is not a fun place to be: it's turned hardened criminals into scared submission, and the daily grind of just sitting in a cell — either by yourself or with a "roommate" you can't stand — can play tricks on your mind that no nightmare can touch. But a lot of prisoners around the country are allowed very small indulgences, and with the participation of gracious volunteers and many public library systems, getting access to books, computers and legal resources is possible, even for those sitting behind bars. Prison libraries range from institutions that are open every day to books-by-mail programs, but these 10 U.S. prisons are well-known for their contributions to literacy, education, and rehabilitation. Or at least they should be.

  1. Racine Correctional Institution: This Wisconsin correctional facility and reformatory school focuses on using education and positive influences to rehabilitate young people, and encouraging the inmates to experiment with the arts is part of that mission. In 2006, the Racine Correctional Institution Library hosted a poetry slam and competition, and a blog was kept to track the progress of the institution's Shakespeare Project. Fifteen to twenty inmates studied and rehearsed Shakespeare plays for nine months, working with theater artists and preparing to perform for the other prisoners and for the community.
  2. Maryland Pre-Release Prisons: Prisoners awaiting release in Maryland can now access well-equipped libraries full of career-planning resources to help them transition into a responsible, productive life in the real world. In 2007, the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries acquired two bookmobile units that travel to each pre-release library, providing prisoners with access to forty-inch smart screens, computers, wireless access, as well as databases and books.
  3. Folsom State Prison Library: This legendary prison also has an impressive library overseen by the the California Department of Corrections. Boasting a law library and library focused on educating inmates, the Folsom State Prison Library also offers a vocational-intern program to prepare certain inmates for the working world outside of jail. The law library has a Paralegal Studies Program which trains inmates in research skills and helps them find forms and legal resources around the library.
  4. Colorado Correctional Libraries: The Colorado State Library's Institutional Library Services unit oversees twenty-three libraries in its Department of Corrections, and the librarians stationed at each prison can feel pretty isolated, overwhelmed, and even abandoned. But in 2006, a unit-wide intranet was created to unite the librarians and offer them support and resources, making it easier for them to share ideas and create helpful tutorials and other materials to their inmates and patrons.
  5. National Institute of Corrections Online Library: The correctional agencies and librarians of the National Institute of Corrections have created a user-friendly, highly educational e-library here. It's a resource center for corrections agencies at all levels who want to find tutorials, training, technical assistance, program development assistance, and research studies to improve their facilities.
  6. Main Prison Library, Angola: Angola, also called "The Farm," is the country's largest maximum-security prison, and many of the prison staff and their families live and play on the premises, too. The Main Library was dedicated in 1968, but there are actually four other branches that serve Angola inmates as well, called Outcamp libraries. Cooperating with the State Library of Louisiana, the Angola libraries participate in an inter-library loan program. In addition to the library system, certain inmates who don't have a GED or high school diploma, as well as inmates scoring low on the Test of Adult Basic Education are allowed to take classes in vocational subjects like automotive technology.
  7. Illinois State Prisons: The Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners project aims to educate the inmate population of local state prisons by providing them with as many books as possible, mostly lent out by individual libraries and regular volunteers from around Illinois. As an avenue for also educating Illinois residents about the state prison system, prisoners and volunteers interact regularly, and many of the inmates' own writings and art pieces are published. Lending libraries have been set up in the two local jails, and the program also offers books by mail to all Illinois inmates.
  8. Norfolk County prison: This Massachusetts prison once inspired Malcolm X to turn himself into a voracious reader and research everything he could about the Muslim religion and Nation of Islam. He wrote articles for the inmates' newsletter, participated in weekly debates at the prison, and holed up in the prison library, copying an entire dictionary to learn new words. Today, the prison still provides education programs to inmates in the culinary arts, computer technology, HVAC, college transition, ESL, reading enrichment, and getting a GED.
  9. Bucks County Prison Library: Pennsylvania's Bucks County Correctional Facility works with the local Lions Club to produce reading material for the blind. In fact, the inmates are the ones who actually "translate" the books and reading material into Braille.
  10. The "standing library" at Rikers: This sprawling New York City jail houses around 14,000 inmates at any given time, ten different jails, schools, gyms, a track, barbershops, grocery stores, and a car wash, among other amenities. The New York Public Library provides all kinds of library services and volunteer projects in conjunction with the Department of Corrections, but a new weekly program — called "the standing library" — operates a bit like a book fair, hosted in one of Rikers' gyms. Inmates are taken down to the gym in groups and are allowed to pick books off the shelves and sit and read for a while. Books are also taken around to prisoners in solitary confinement, who are allowed one extra book to read.