I’ve spent most of this week in the American Library Association Archives, sifting through information about library services and incarceration. I started around 1950 and am moving my way forward to the present (sorry for the deep history buffs! Maybe I’ll return; or maybe that is a project for someone else!).
I’ve found some events that aren’t recorded in the timeline that will be published with my book. Here is a preliminary summary of a few, for the record:
A 1976 ALA Resolution on Service to Detention Facilities and Jails, which likely led to the formation of the National Institute on Improving Jail Library Services. The Resolution is available here.
A survey of library services to local institutions that took place through the late 1970s and was published by ALA in 1980.
A 1980 replication of a 1938 survey of library services in the federal Bureau of Prisons. Among other highlights, the survey report, which was made available in 1982, was condemned by the BOP for the “negative, belligerent” tone of recommendations.
As I continue to review the materials I’ve digitized on this trip, I’m hoping to find more information about the tensions between the American Correctional Association and the American Library Association regarding the inclusion of a Prisoners’ Right to Read statement in the 1980s version of the Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions. So far I’ve only located passing references to a “current controversy over accreditation standards of libraries in prisons.”
Chelsea Jordan-Makely and I have been collaborating to locate information about academic, public, and special library services for people who are incarcerated or in reentry. Today, our article summarizing these services–Outside and In: Services for People Impacted by Incarceration–went live through the Library Journal website. It will also be available in print later this month.
We doubt that we’ve located everything, and can’t wait to find out about other libraries providing books, programs, or other library services for people who are incarcerated or in reentry. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Library Research Service at Colorado State Library to create a survey about this type of service!
Academic, special, and public librarians and staff are encouraged to respond.
I’ve previously published in First Monday on mail digitization through Smart Communications, particularly in the instance of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). That research shows that moves toward ICTs in carceral facilities introduce new forms of information control and are typically utilized for surveillance that affects people inside of jails, prisons, detention centers, and other facilities as well as their families, friends, and other contacts on the outside. This means that new ICTs in prisons not only increase coordinated surveillance of people already most likely to experience the brunt end of racism in policing, but also that the algorithms utilized in these new forms of surveillance are refined through compulsory applications in carceral facilities. Due to bias in policing and incarceration, these “data pools” include more Black, Indigenous, and people of color than there are in the general population of the United States. By refining surveillance technologies in jails, prisons, and detention centers, companies create increased opportunity for racism in policing and incarceration, often while working under the guise of neutrality.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) interest in Smart Comunications technology is particularly of note. At the time of my research, the Federal BOP had maintained the same mail policy for at least 20 years. It is not a system prone to change. Policies created in that system are likely to not only bolster the income and perceived prestige of Smart Communications, but also will increase the likelihood that mail digitization technologies are implemented in carceral facilities across the country. As a system that serves as a model for carceral practices, a change to mail policies in federal prisons will have lasting consequences on how smaller-scale and more local systems are able to surveil people who are incarcerated and their connections in the general public. While Smart Communications claims that mail legal mail is not digitized, there is existing precedent for monitoring digital attorney-client communications. The Federal BOP already potentially monitors all electronic communications, legal and personal, made through TRULINCS, though there is political effort underway to create a new software that does not monitor legal communication. (An aside: the Federal BOP is also a system that does not trust its own employees to have consistent internet access at work.)
Physical mail in prisons is already highly regulated. For example, in California, some prison issued envelopes contain a list of materials that will be rejected —
Even as facilities across the United States implement similar restrictions as those printed on this envelope, the physical mail has allowed for people to maintain meaningful relationships and access information. Aside from issues with mail loss, delays, and scanning failures (also here), digitizing and surveilling by-mail communications will effect how people express themselves and maintain their shared humanity through the physical mail.
Libraries across the country receive information requests from people who are incarcerated, and formal Reference by Mail services are proliferating. These services are necessary because information is increasingly born-digital and available only online, and people who are incarcerated have (aside from a few sparse examples) no sanctioned access to the Internet. From a librarian perspective, it is important to note that a watchful eye has a cooling effect on all types of information requests, be they related to pop culture, a passing moment of curiosity, reentry planning, personal and collective identity, or academic pursuits. It is within our professional concerns to resist efforts to digitize and surveil the mail to and from people who are incarcerated.
My forthcoming book, Library services and incarceration: Recognizing barriers, strengthening access (published by ALA), is now available to pre-order. The book will be available in summer 2021. You can order it directly from ALA at https://www.alastore.ala.org/lsai.
I’m so thankful to the ALA team for this beautiful cover and for making the book a reality. Special thanks to Rachel Chance, my acquisitions editor, for her endless support for the book and for library services to people inside of immigrant detention centers, jails, juvenile detentions, and prisons.
An in-progress chapter from this book is available (for free!) here.
While many public libraries in the United States likely offer some type of service to people in jails, prisons, detention centers, or in the process of reentry, it is surprisingly difficult to locate information about these programs. A new project is seeking information on public library initiatives that are intentionally providing services to people impacted by incarceration.
To view what they have already gathered, please click here.
To add information to the document, please contact me.
For more context on the information gathering project, please visit Renewed Libraries.
I believe that a detailed list of public libraries providing these programs will allow librarians to find one another, consider innovative ideas, and present supporting evidence that it is the role of the public library to provide information and services to people impacted by incarceration. I’m very excited to see this list grow!