Prison Libraries: Shelves Bare and Minds Restless

Censorship, Prison Libraries

By: Tommy Vinh Bui

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

Malcolm X

It was a blustery downtown Los Angeles afternoon. Many a dust cloud being kicked up and the sheer tonnage of palm fronds creaking and careening onto the concrete in a kerrang alarming but a regular sight. Those Santa Ana winds were earning their notoriety today sending countless zephyrs to ruin carefully crafted coifs all over the city. Dresses ruffled. Ties sent askew.

I was walking from Union Station to the nearby Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility lugging in tow two satchels of weeded and withdrawn books from my local library. Books that otherwise would gather dust on a sales cart or be julienned and mooshed into bales at a recycling center. I figured they would be of better use in amenable hands as donations. So I carefully sifted through and compiled a pretty decent collection of paperbacks, textbooks, and special interests books and lumped them all together and off I went to deliver them into the hands of interested parties hopefully.

I arrived and imagine my chagrin when I learned that the front desk would not be receptive to receiving an unvetted cache of mystery items from a perfect stranger off the street. It was a hard no and have a nice day. In hindsight, I should’ve anticipated this response. The security issues and the liability concerns notwithstanding, there’s just a procedure in place for such endeavors. A procedure that I would eventually familiarize myself with but currently was inconsolable over the realization that I huffed and puffed these tomes for naught. At that very moment I was disheartened that I would be making that long trudge back burdened with not only the books but a sense of perplexity over how onerous something simple as getting reading material to prisoners shouldn’t have to be.

Chillicothe Prison Library from ALA Archives
Chillicothe Prison Library (American Library Association Archives)

In an environment where exposure to natural light is limited to sometimes a mere hour a day, the inward illumination that books are capable of providing should be something that is more accessible and available to inmates. But that is rarely the case for most prison libraries. From the prison administration’s perspective, the most pressing concern about donated books involve the possibility of smuggling contraband into the facility. Also, restrictions on what is deemed suitable for a prison library is heightening and the range of materials that actually get placed on the shelves gets narrower and narrower every day. Many prisons have stringent bans on what specific titles can reach the hands of inmates. Books that have been categorized as threats for their capability to possibly foment disorder and insurrection.

The public outcry and backlash against certain prison policies preventing inmates access to books has been fully-voiced and effective. PEN America recently reported the prison policies as essentially censorship and deplorable and amounting to the nation’s largest book ban. Advocates for the rights of prisoners have mobilized to protest this egregious act of censorship by making appeals to the Supreme Court arguing that access to books and self-educational opportunities have rehabilitative and restorative qualities that cannot be overlooked. Studies have shown that prisoners with equitable and free access to books have a constructive outlet and increased productivity within a prison environment. Self-study also increases skills and job marketability upon release thus contributing to a declining recidivism rate. Making available books on a myriad of relevant and germane topics such as legal research, job training, and parenting guides have proven to be supremely useful to inmates. The long and short of it, books and education are critical to rehabilitation within the incarceration system.   

The positive impact of access to books within the prison system is quantifiable. Some prison systems refer to inmate library records when gauging parole eligibility. Prisons in Brazil and Italy have programs that allow inmates to shorten their sentences dependent upon how many books they can read and finish. There have also been studies that suggest that bibliotherapy amongst prisoners help ameliorate the effects of depression and psychological distress during their sentences.

The current state of many prison libraries is dire. Budgets are constantly being slashed and funds for new books dwindle further day by day. And prison librarian positions are becoming more difficult to staff as a result. Though things may seem bleak they’re nary hopeless. There are an assortment of organizations and nonprofits that combat censorship and advocate tirelessly for the rights of prisoners to read freely. Organizations such as Reading Reduces Recidivism and the Prisoners Literature Project are just two that champion the cause of getting books and access to education for prisoners.

I lumber on down the street with my unwieldy bouquets of books; forearms straining from the heft of knowledge that will go un-acquired by inquisitive minds for the time being. Though my attempts to impart curiosity and literary respite to folks clamoring for it were momentarily foiled that afternoon, I took solace in knowing that headway was being made to change prison policies. And that the deprivation of books and curbing of avenues to self-improvement for prisoners was slowly being curtailed.

But in the meantime, these books are still heavy. And remain unflipped-thru and woefully stowed from any eager eyes.

Tommy Vinh Bui

Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.


  • Your article is not reflective of my Low Security Library at Montana State Prison. For five years I have been building the collection . The previous Librarian had several copies of a Lawrence Welk biography and other outdated books. However, I have added the genres of Steam Punk, Alternative History, Dystopian, Afrofuturism, Christian Fiction, Christian Suspense. In addition, there is Nonfiction, Western Fiction, Science Fiction and Fiction Fantasy and general Fiction.
    Being a Prison Librarian is a challenging job. On the other hand, it is rewarding. Everyday you know you know without a shadow of doubt that books have the ability to help offenders reenter society as informed citizens.

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