Education is a basic human right to which all people are entitled, regardless of age, gender, socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. According to international standards, prisoners also have the right to access education. And prison libraries can play a pivotal role in supporting their access to education, and in helping them to build new and different lives on release. In reality, however, prisoners' right to education is frequently overlooked or disregarded. Moreover, prisoners are rarely part of any educational discourse as they are locked away, often at a distance from the mass people. Public opinion is often not in favor of treating prisoners well, and sees imprisonment as punishment or deterrence. At the same time, many prison systems around the world are in crisis, with severe overcrowding, high rates of recidivism, violence and poor prison conditions.

Prisoners, usually, come from poor, discriminated and marginalized groups and communities and they are more likely to have had limited or no educational experience than the rest of society. Many have difficulties with reading and writing and have probably never or rarely used a library before. Hence, providing educational opportunities, including quality library services could be one way of supporting their rehabilitation; since, one day, most prisoners are released and they should be able to live crime-free dignified lives afterwards. In the book "Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries", the author Lisa Krolak (Chief Librarian at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning) examines the critical role prison libraries play in supporting the mandate of prison authorities around the world to rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates into society. She attempts to provide a holistic view of prison libraries, including the role of the prison librarian, security issues and how they relate to the library's collection, the possibility of digital opportunities and challenges, and much more.

The book demonstrates the potential of prison libraries to be spaces for intellectual escape, discovery and lifelong learning. Apart from supporting lifelong learning and the opportunity to improve educational levels, prison libraries can provide services that help prisoners with their daily lives and help planning for once they are released. Providing materials for pleasure reading and other entertainment opportunities is a constructive way of passing free time and can be a means of distraction and escaping daily worries. Prison libraries can also support social cohesion, acting as meeting places with a calm, relaxed and safe atmosphere, as well as spaces for readings, debates and culture. However, the author observes that majority of prison libraries around the world are facing various challenges. They are often insufficiently funded, not very attractive and located in unsuitable and inaccessible locations.

Based on the review conducted in this publication, covering a wide range of prison library experiences across the world, Lisa Krolak suggests a few policy directions that emerge from good practices: I. Prison libraries should model the library system that is used outside the prison walls - working closely with the local (public) library system. II. The operation and conditions of prison libraries need to be based on relevant and continuously updated policy documents and practical guidelines. III. Prison libraries need to be managed by trained prison library staff with access to sufficient resources. IV. Prison libraries need to provide access to relevant reading materials and information in a safe and friendly environment. V. To enhance the transformative potential of reading and writing and to give an incentive to use their services, prison libraries should organize various outreach and literacy activities, such as reading circles, creative writing workshops and cultural performances.

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail:

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts