Without doubt, prisons are some of the toughest environments where libraries can be found, working with users who face complex problems. Yet by helping to develop new skills and prepare inmates for life outside, they can potentially have a huge impact.

To find out more, we interviewed Lisa Krolak, Chief Librarian at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in Germany.

Lisa is the author of Books beyond Bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries, launched at WLIC 2019 in Athens. She chairs the IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries,  established under the Section for Library Services to People with Special Needs Section (LSN). For more information, you can contact her directly.


Front cover, Books Beyond Bars. Cover: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Image: Clifford Harper 1) Why focus on prison libraries in particular?

According to international standards, prisoners have the right to access education and information, including quality library services. Yet in reality most prison libraries are underressourced and work in isolation. Public opinion is often not in favour of treating prisoners well, and sees incarceration as punishment or deterrence. But after all, one day, most prisoners are released and it should be in all our interests that they are able to live crime-free lives afterwards.

Prisoners are more likely to 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 difficculties with reading and writing and have probably never or rarely used a library before. Providing educational opportunities, including quality library services is one way of supporting their rehabilitation.


2) What difference can prison libraries make?

Access to education and more specifically libraries and reading materials can help to break the cycle of educational disadvantage, poverty, violence and crime. 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 also support social cohesion, acting as meeting places with a calm, relaxed and safe atmosphere, as well as spaces for readings, debates and culture.

Then there is the transformative potential of participating in literacy activities (such as reading circles or creative writing workshops), which support critical thinking and might enable prisoners to self-reflect on their life. Using the services of the prison library is one of the very few opportunities where inmates have the autonomy and responsibility to make their own choices by selecting what to read and get informed about.


3) What factors hold them back from achieving this?

The majority of prison libraries face significant challenges. They are often insufficiently funded, not very attractive and located in unsuitable and inaccessible locations. Furthermore, they often have to rely on donated and often outdated materials that do not reflect the interests, reading levels, language skills or needs of the prison population. In many prison libraries a special focus should be given to prisoners with low literacy levels and from non-native language backgrounds. This can be done by providing easy reading materials and in various languages, but such specific materials will not be available in many prison libraries.

Just very few countries have well-established prison-library systems run by professional librarians. In most places, prison libraries are run by designated prison staff with the help of inmates or community volunteers who have received no or just little training in prison librarianship.


4) What scope is there for mutual learning and exchange between prison librarians and other librarians?

Prison libraries are part of the wider library community. Ideally, prisoners should receive the same library services as people living outside prison. There are systems where prison libraries are branches of the local public library network. This ensures professional standards and the chance to introduce prisoners to a public service that they hopefully will continue using once released. 

In other countries the public library system has made an organized effort to modernize prison libraries according to their standards. In any case, public and prison librarians should connect and work together. They can meet on a regular basis, share materials and plan common activities, such as author readings inside and outside of prisons. Prison libraries can also take part in cultural activities of the wider community, such as reading nights or reading aloud events, which can serve as a perfect bridge between both worlds.


5) What steps do you plan to take to ensure that decision-makers understand the value of effective prison libraries? What do you hope they will do?

At my Institute, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, we will publish in March a policy brief on prison libraries aimed at decision makers. It will be distributed at the next UN Crime Congress in April 2020, reaching prison authorities from all over the world. This month, my book on prison libraries was published in German. We will send it to all German-speaking prisons in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Two copies each, one for the prison administration and one for the prison library service. Additionally, we will provide all German federal Ministers and Senators of Justice with a free copy. 

To further underline the transformative potential of prison libraries, we need to conduct and collect further research on the benefits and impact of prison libraries and find ways to share these findings with decision makers. International policy documents already call for the establishment of prison libraries, but they do not give any guidelines or quality standards, particularly on funding. Decision-makers can have the best intention and refer to most beautifully written policy documents, but if at the end of the day they do not provide sufficient budget needed for relevant materials, activities and on-going training for prison library staff, the prison library service will simply not reach its potential.


6) How do you plan to take this work further within IFLA?

At IFLA WLIC in Athens in August 2019, we started an IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries. At this point it comprises of nearly 40 prison librarians and public librarians, academics and people working in civil society organizations focusing on serving prison libraries. The group already provided valuable input for the above mentioned policy brief on prison libraries. In a next step we will fill a newly established project page on prison libraries, located on the website of the IFLA Section on Library Services for People with Special Needs (LSN), with relevant information.

In early summer, we will start to update and revise the IFLA Guidelines on Providing Library Services for Prisoners as the current Guidelines date back to 2005. The new Guidelines will be presented at a session on prison libraries, which will take place at IFLA WLIC in Rotterdam in August 2021, where we hope to also be able to visit a prison library.


Find out more about the work of IFLA’s Section on Libraries Serving Persons with Special Needs.