Australian prisoners, similarly to those internationally, are typically under-educated and unemployed and 27% of prisoners identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as opposed to 3% of the general population. Incarcerated people are also more likely to suffer from mental illness and substance dependency issues.They are an invisible section of society and when they are noticed society often resents spending money on perceived ‘luxuries’ for them such as libraries. However, they have rights like everybody else, including a right to information.
Libraries offer many benefits to the prison community and society including mental escapism, education, rehabilitation, widening of horizons and help with transition back into the community on release. They can provide resources and support programs that empower prisoners to gain vocational or educational skills which has been proven to reduce recidivism. By improving prisoners’ functional literacy and information literacy, recidivism will also be reduced as non-literate people are more likely to commit crime. In addition, prisoners who are employed as library assistants develop skills that they can then use on release to gain employment.
Libraries in prisons also have the potential to reduce the digital divide faced by many prisoners on their release into society. Computer access is only allowed in prisons for educational purposes and is closely supervised, with internet access banned due to security restrictions. This access is further limited by the prison routine, lockdowns and limited resources. By reducing digital access, prisoners’ digital literacy is also compromised, putting them at a greater disadvantage when they are released into an increasingly digital world, particularly if they have been incarcerated for a long period of time. This can impact them being able to access basic resources such as Medicare, Centrelink, support agencies, housing, employment and education which are all becoming increasingly digitalised.
By addressing prisoners’ information needs, providing them with education and improving their literacy in all forms, recidivism is reduced at a great social and financial benefit to society. A well-resourced library can provide the prisoner with a means of mental escape, and educational and legal material. Education has been proven to reduce recidivism and recreational reading reduces boredom and adverse behaviour whilst incarcerated, along with improving literacy. Whilst some in society, together with some politicians may argue that spending on ‘luxuries’ for prisoners should be reduced, a well-resourced library is not a luxury, but is a necessity . The benefits extend beyond the prison walls to society in general by potentially reducing re-offending by the library patrons. Prison libraries should adhere to ALIA’s guidelines. to ensure that they are effective in meeting the prisoners’ information needs and achieving these benefits.
Providing a library anywhere is more than just the collection of books. It’s about tailoring the books to meet the community’s needs, providing experts to help them navigate the information, the provision of alternate sources of information such as electronic and multimedia, providing programs to enrich and improve lives and respecting intellectual freedom and the right to information. Libraries and librarians have the power to change peoples’ lives.