“The problem with the public discussion about libraries in prison is that it’s the wrong discussion. For over a century now, the debate has centered on reading — on which books should, or more often should not, be included on the prison library’s shelves; which books are “harmful” or “helpful”; whether reading is a privilege or a right. In 1867, Wines argued that a book like “Robinson Crusoe” — at the time, the only secular novel permitted in prison — served the cause of criminal rehabilitation. Others fervently disagreed.
“But the issue of reading is only one dimension of the question, and not necessarily the salient one. The crucial point of a prison library may not be its book catalog: The point is that it is a library.
“The library is a shared public space, a hub, where people spend significant portions of their time, often daily. It is a place inmates work and, in some important ways, live. It is more purposeful and educational than a recreational yard, less formal than a classroom. The prison library gives inmates an organic way to connect to the world, to each other, to themselves as citizens. It’s a small democratic institution set deep within a prison, one they can choose to join.
“This is no small matter. The vast majority of prison inmates will eventually be released back into the free world, back into the community. What happens to them once they are out is the critical piece of the corrections puzzle. It doesn’t take an expert to know that a person who lands in prison, a person often already on the margins of society, will grow further isolated from the norms and routines of society while in prison. And yet, at the very same time, and in this very same building, many inmates — often for the first time in their lives — are also quietly becoming enmeshed in an important social institution.”
Writing for the Boston Globe, Avi Stenberg, author of Running the Books:The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, explores the social role of prison libraries in Escape Route