Intellectual Freedom for the Incarcerated

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Prison Libraries

By: Ross Sempek

This past March, the Washington Department of Corrections Prison Division issued a memorandum that terminated prison library book donations from non-profit organizations. A collective wait, what?! ensued, as did a phone zap to protest this move, spurring a press release from the Washington DOC just two days later. According to the WA prisons, book-borne contraband recently spiked in 2018, and this policy change was an effort to block one avenue for illegal imports. A controversy piqued my interest, and I pondered intellectual freedom for prisoners. “IF must exist on the other side of the societal coin, but how does it function?” Questions dovetailed and research was my only remedy.

My first stop was ALA (naturally) and I was pleased to find the Prisoners’ Right to Read. The ALA aptly includes the necessity for a cessation of contraband as well as this pithy nugget:

“Information and ideas available outside the prison are essential to people who are incarcerated for a successful transition to freedom.”

river landscape, bridge and padlocksIt turns out that “transition” is one of the more interesting words in this thesis. Prison libraries have been around for a while, and over some centuries collections have evolved alongside shifting public opinion and government legislation. These societal sects have debated and dictated the goal of incarceration, and prison libraries reflect this tangled back-and-forth.

Prison libraries in the 19th century simply offered prisoner-patrons bibles or other religious religious materials. The idea was that prisoners needed divine intervention in order to become fully human. Crime represented straying from the path of God, and the prison existed to punish, and steer the bad guys back on track. Over time, availability of non-religious materials gradually fleshed out the once myopic collections, but even these had to be approved by in-house priests at some prisons. A collection imbued with a *ahem* patronizing tone gave rise to a secular salvation known as “reform.” Criminals will be humanized by doing human things, like reading. In practice this was great: books to prisoners – how cool! But not only was true reform an impossible task, it went against the prison and public’s philosophy of punishment-induced remorse.

Emblematic of the conflict between oppressors and the oppressed, prisoners’ rights was one wing of the 70s-era zeitgeist, and what culminated was the 1977 Supreme Court ruling, Bounds v. Smith. The ruling obligated all state prisons to cater to the unusual need for prisoners’ access to legal acumen. This was to be provided by on-demand legal counsel, or a law library. Prisoners with agency over their incarceration was met with mixed reviews. Granting constitutional rights to humans was a non-issue for some, and lip-service for others who argued that legalese was beyond the reach of your average prisoner. But those in the prison system bemoaned this as open season for the ere-ignorant charges to undermine their precious power structure. In time, they would be vindicated by an explosion in prison population in the 80s and 90s coupled with a conservative political milieu that engendered a Supreme Court ruling that effectively nullified Bounds. In Lewis v. Casey, the Supreme Court upheld the idea that prisoners need access to legal materials, but they were not constitutionally entitled to a law library. The ruling doesn’t explicitly omit libraries from prison programming, but many prisons took this as an opportunity to pare down or completely eliminate law libraries, and offer, at best, stymieing legal counsel. A punitive attitude underlies this shift, and it was realized in prison libraries country-wide. Yet our country has astronomical recidivism rates. Weird!

To make a long story short: compulsory religion, reform, remorse, and dehumanizing punishment didn’t and doesn’t work. Hence the modern conceptual push toward transition. The best we can hope for is that once the incarcerated are freed, they are prepared to exist in the world outside those walls. To engender this shift, we have to treat them as people capable of operating in the larger world. This idea expands consideration of prisoner’s rights, but time will tell if we get there in practicality. Most, if not, all, US prisons deny direct inmate access to the internet and free-standing computers. Like it or not, the world has been digitized, and this approach leaves ex-convicts severely disadvantaged in a successful transition to normalcy.

Prisoners’ abilities to receive certain information is understandably less than that of the free citizen. And as a result their information consumption is heavily vetted – prison mailrooms are milieus for censorship. But after diving into this subject, I believe it is reprehensible for the Washington DOC to feign security concerns in order to legitimize unconstitutional behavior. Safeguards exist to prevent contraband from entering punitive institutions, so why are books suddenly a problem? By denying prisoners potential access to information, they are also denying them the humbling act of charity from caring individuals. They are denied the very foundation of the society in which they are expected to exist once released.

This counterproductive impulse to treat the symptoms of an issue is perhaps the most appropriate analog for the US correctional system itself. After considering the historical plight of the US prisoner, it’s clear to me that the intellectual freedoms that we exploit to inform our world-views affect those very same freedoms of the incarcerated. This is an influence that we shouldn’t take lightly.


Vogel, Brenda. The Prison Library Primer. Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.


Ross SempekRoss Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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