Growing Services: Libraries Creating Access for Incarcerated People

Library workers who provide services for people negatively impacted by the prison industrial complex (PIC) are proud of their work—even though it can be difficult—from starting and keeping programs going, to carrying the load over time. 

How libraries outside of prisons create access to information for incarcerated people

Library workers who provide services for people negatively impacted by the prison industrial complex (PIC) are proud of their work—even though it can be difficult—from starting and keeping programs going, to carrying the load over time. (The PIC is a concept popularized by scholars and activists that refers to the interlocking network of jails, juvenile detention centers, prisons, probation, supervised release, and parole, as well as the government, private companies, and related groups like prison industry unions and lobbyists that maintain or profit from this system.)

Link to the 2022–23 Survey

These workers see that the services they provide make a difference in patrons’ lives and develop a deeper understanding of the problems that perpetuate cycles of harm in our communities. These were the big takeaways from the 2021–22 Library Services and Incarceration survey, which aimed to locate examples of libraries providing these services and find out more about their scope and impact. Responses show how libraries of all types are responding to what the American Library Association’s (ALA) Prisoners’ Right to Read resolution describes as a “compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps, and segregated units within any facility, whether public or private. As one respondent said, “I’ve been supporting individuals affected by incarceration throughout almost all of my library career and it is one of my absolute favorite and most rewarding things to do. It has opened my eyes to the challenges that individuals and families face and the hurdles they have to overcome and has also made me a much stronger advocate for the often-forgotten individuals in our society.”

Another remarked, “I believe that the library is for everyone, truly everyone, and we’ve been missing a large chunk of our community by not partnering with the jail. I’m eager to remedy that.”

Our survey was launched alongside an article in the September 2021 issue of LJ that provided examples of libraries outside of jails, prisons, and other carceral facilities that deliver these services. At that time, we’d located fewer than 50 examples. As of today, we have identified upward of 90, and thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and ALA, this work continues to expand in scope.

The number of libraries offering these services continues to grow, too. Of the 93 initiatives we’ve identified so far, 13 were started just in the past year, and 18 were less than five years old.

In total, we received 110 responses to our survey. More than two-thirds of these (78) were from public libraries, 20 from academic libraries, and eight from state libraries. The settings where these services were located also varied, with 53 responses from libraries in urban settings, and the rest in smaller cities and suburban and rural areas. The majority of respondents were either librarians (44) or people in management positions (30), plus another 16 responses from other frontline library workers, eight program managers, and 10 “other” positions. Thirty-six states were represented, plus a few responses from Canada and Australia. We also asked where respondents were offering these services, and found a mix of jails (55), prisons (46), and juvenile detention facilities (27), plus two closed mental health facilities and one immigration detention center.

In addition to describing their organizations and the services they provided, we asked respondents about their experiences with censorship, the pandemic, promoting their programs, and the impact that creating or maintaining library services had on them and for their patrons. The responses we received paint a vivid picture of the work done to bring library services to people negatively impacted by incarceration. They also underscore the difficulty in researching, delivering, and advocating for programs and services of this nature—or in navigating what one respondent described as “a collection of obstacles.”

Map courtesy of Bee Okelo, SFPL-JARS Administrative & GIS Analyst



Several libraries, including the Queens Public Library, offer re-entry guides.

Building trust and buy-in from administrators–—in both libraries and the facilities they aim to serve—can be challenging. As one respondent told us, “I do [this work] on my own time. It’s changed everything about how I see the world and people and the institutions in my city. I feel simultaneously disillusioned and hopeful. I want to leverage the resources at the library to help people more. It feels like I’m sitting on a pile of gold that nobody will let me give away.”

Responses such as this help us to understand why there aren’t more programs of this nature being offered. One respondent told us that some attitudes of library staff, facility staff, and community members—“Why are you spending library money on criminals?”—are a common barrier. We suspect that this may also be a factor that prevents library workers from talking about or promoting their programs, and may even have kept some people from responding to our survey. In answer to a question about whether their libraries promoted these programs, or if not, why, one respondent said, “Because then they’d actually have to fund us!” Others told us that they could not promote their services because they were on hold due to staffing challenges and/or the coronavirus pandemic.

There were 13 respondents who said their services were not operational at present, either because they were just being planned, or because of the pandemic. Respondents offered comments such as, “The facilities have all been in lock down due to COVID-19. Every time I tried to come up with a remote program there were barriers including material allowed, target markets, and ability to distribute resources.” Another respondent said, “The jail was closed to any kind of outsiders due to COVID-19, and they would not even accept donations.”

Just as the PIC marginalizes and makes invisible the people it ensnares, it also silences discourse about the system and the needs it creates. Libraries can be important allies in changing this dynamic. “Our incarcerated patrons tell us that they feel this is the only way they are able to obtain much of the information they want or need,” one respondent told us. “We have also had patrons tell us that simply receiving letters helps them feel connected to the outside world and acknowledged as people.”

Despite the hardships of this work, some said that there was nothing they would rather be doing. As one respondent from an academic library in Illinois stated, “Maintaining an incarceration-related program through our department (and looking for more ways to connect the library to similar work on campus and in the community) has provided me with rewarding opportunities to connect library work with social justice. Because of this, I wish that my entire day was focused on incarceration-related programming/services.”




The types of services that libraries can provide to people negatively impacted by the PIC range from in-person and in-facility programs to other, indirect service models such as re-entry guides. Our research found 45 respondents whose libraries provided in-person services, and 52 who said their libraries provided other, remote services to people who were incarcerated.

We heard from several libraries that approached local facilities to propose programs. Another respondent told us how they had reached out to local transitional housing to learn what support they could offer. They described “meeting with residents and staff in order to share some info about the library and have a conversation with their residents about their experiences, goals, and how the library can serve them better.”

Respondents who deliver services within jails and prisons most often provided library introductions and orientations, followed closely by materials lending and literacy programs, then reference services, computer access, and legal services. Among libraries providing remote services, reference was the most common, followed by materials lending, literacy programming, and library orientation, then legal services and computer/internet access. Emily Horning at the Yale University Library wrote: “We’ve set up a solid Research Request Network to answer research/reference questions from incarcerated students, and have trained a large group of on-campus student volunteers to answer questions (and become better researchers themselves in the process). I have also done some library instruction/orientation for incarcerated students, via Microsoft Teams and on-site at the facility.”



We wanted to know whether libraries were offering any services for people who have been incarcerated, or for their loved ones, or to inform the general public about incarceration. The most common response was that respondents’ libraries do not offer any such services.

Of the libraries that do offer these types of programs, 28 offer “job preparation/re-entry support,” 26 provide digital literacy programs or services, 20 said “resource lists for re-entry are posted on our website or available in print,” and 14 offer programs for people with incarcerated loved ones. Twelve libraries said they offer programs about incarceration for the general public. Another 12 libraries provide legal services. Examples included “virtual programs and podcasts on knowing your rights in relation to a wide variety of topics” and free, in-house consultations, known as “Lawyer in the Library,” to help with needs such as expungement.



Among programs, there were several recurring types, such as TeleStory, book clubs, and reference by mail. A number of libraries said they offer re-entry guides in print and online. These can be important tools in “helping customers to navigate technology toward gaining employment, health access, and educational goals,” as in the case of the Queens Public Library’s Reentry Resources Guide. Dan Marcou, an outreach worker from the Hennepin County Library, MN, shared the website, with useful links and resources for other library workers, as well as people who are incarcerated.

Respondents also shared other creative initiatives for people negatively impacted by incarceration. We learned that the Denver Public Library offers Dungeons and Dragons, a science fiction book club, and zine building kits, in addition to a “Read Aloud Mail’’ program. The Alameda County Library, CA, sponsored several author talks at the local juvenile detention center, with authors including Angie Thomas and Reginald Dwayne Betts, as well as a screening of The Feminist on Cellblock Y. An Alameda County librarian worked with other librarians across California to create a Ready Access Toolkit for people negatively impacted by incarceration and library workers. Academic libraries are also creating resources, such as Chicago State Library’s Information Justice Institute.

Our research also found a variety of digital literacy services, from one-on-one training to outreach services “provided in each branch and at the Brooklyn DA’s office” by the Brooklyn Public Library’s Justice Initiatives program. We also identified examples of libraries that offer programs for the general public. As one respondent explained, “We do periodic programs with speakers about incarceration and the criminal justice system, with a focus on...exposing the issues of the mass incarceration system.”



Libraries may partner with other organizations to provide services for people who have been negatively impacted by the PIC, even if they do not explicitly provide services themselves. Nonprofits were the most common type of partner organization, followed by other libraries, then law enforcement agencies. There were 17 “other” types of partners, listed below. Note that of these 89 responses to this question, 10 had not otherwise said that their libraries offered programs or services designed for people who have been incarcerated, their loved ones, or to educate the general public about incarceration.

Our survey also asked about policies, practices, and training opportunities. Of 91 people who answered this question, 11 said that their libraries did not offer any policies or training designed with people negatively impacted by incarceration in mind. Of those whose libraries did offer these trainings, the most popular answer was, “Staff are trained in inclusive practices, such as anti-racism and using people-first language.” The second most common response was, “We intentionally acquire materials relevant to incarceration.”

Twenty survey respondents said their libraries will accept jail- or prison-issued identification for library cards and 25 said their libraries don’t require proof of address to issue a library card. There were 24 respondents who said that staff in their libraries were trained in trauma-informed care. Another 17 said their hiring practices do not discriminate against people who have criminal records, and 15 said their libraries offer volunteer opportunities for people who need to accrue community service hours.

Just three respondents in our data set said their libraries refuse prison labor, though there seems to be growing concern about this issue among library workers, as evidenced by the start of the “PIC Labor Divestment Interest Group,” in 2020. This is a subgroup of the Abolitionist Library Association (AbLA), formed in 2020 to “build awareness of and counter” trends towards using prison labor “by pushing for divestment to fund things that will advance equity and ways of living that aren’t carceral.”



The trouble with assessing library policies and practices is that they vary across personnel and systems. As one respondent said, “I don’t think these are necessarily policies we have, just practices.” It follows that when these expectations are not formalized, they can vary from person to person. In answering the question of what supports people who are providing these services needed besides funding, we heard a need for “training hosted by director and upper management that emphasizes that any library system must provide services to all members of its community.”

Leadership from the City of San Francisco have set an outstanding example on this front. Michael Lambert of SFPL states unequivocally, “San Francisco Public Library is committed to creating a library system that is welcoming to all of our patrons, including our incarcerated patrons and their families. By providing essential library services to individuals behind bars, we can help people find joy and connection, despite the circumstances caused by incarceration. This is also central to our efforts to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of SFPL’s mission.”

When asked if they thought they had the skills or training to provide quality services to people negatively impacted by incarceration, 15 people strongly agreed, and 36 agreed. When we asked respondents if they thought other staff in their libraries were similarly equipped, 38 said no.

The data shows that this work is often being carried by individuals, which may explain the break between services that are new and those that are long-standing. As one respondent described, there was “no dedicated team to keep trying.... If the library created a program completely dedicated to this, it would go differently.”

Survey responses indicate that more training is needed for all library staff. As part of the “Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People” grant project, SFPL’s Jail and Reentry Services staff will coordinate a yearlong training series on library services and incarceration. This training series will incorporate information from survey responses, input collected from the ALA Annual Conference, and areas of need identified by members of our advisory committee, which includes currently and formerly incarcerated people. Trainings will be asynchronous, virtual, and free, with an added incentive of possibly earning Continuing Education credits for each training through ALA. A new training will be released each month. (Please complete the form to receive updates and be informed of upcoming trainings.)

In addition to what we heard about a need for administrative and institutional recognition, respondents told us that they needed more staffing and time, followed by “more information about what services were of interest to people negatively impacted by incarceration,” (49) and “examples of service models.” Respondents also wanted opportunities to connect with others who are doing this work, underscoring the point that many people who are providing these services feel isolated. A respondent from the Whatcom County Library System, WA, explained that even though their outreach program has been active for almost 50 years, “it’s still an evolving service. Other service/program models and connections to other providers would be the most important kind of support at this time.”



We also asked about how these services are staffed, funded, and evaluated. In most cases (more than 90 percent), library staff plan and deliver library services for people negatively impacted by incarceration. Another 36 respondents said these programs were delivered by partner organization staff. Eight respondents said they were managed by people who have experienced incarceration, and seven each said their programs were organized by volunteers or a Friends of the Library group.

Staff from the Cumberland County Public Library, NC, told us that building relationships with a local re-entry council, which includes people who have been incarcerated and was organized by the local police department, was the “most effective thing we could do” in gaining support for its services. They also described collaborating with facility staff “to run a book club that incorporates basic library introduction.” This was one of several examples of “train-the-trainer” services that we found. The New York Public Library is another that offers “library orientation for probation staff, for them to share those resources with clients.”

Respondents described how staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and have threatened to undermine their relationships with administrators in the facilities they serve: “[Administrators] have been receptive to programs we want to offer, but don’t have the time/manpower to run/promote the programs as much as we desire. It’s hard because we are not allowed in the jail at the moment due to COVID-19, so we are dependent on them more than we want to be to run the program.”

Programs and services for people negatively impacted by incarceration were funded most often from the library’s own budget, versus that of the carceral facility, a partner organization, or other outside funding. Grants go a long way in supporting this work: 27 respondents said their programs were funded by some sort of grant. Eight of these were from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, while 19 were from other organizations. Without reliable funding from within the library system, staff who would otherwise be able to continue providing library services and resources must reallocate that time to researching and applying for grants (when available) to ensure the longevity of their in-facility services.

About half of respondents said their libraries evaluate the services they provide for people negatively impacted by incarceration, while 12 said they didn’t know, and six said the question wasn’t applicable. Fourteen people said their libraries didn’t evaluate these resources or services. Comments showed services were just getting off the ground, or that the pandemic was an inhibitor. There is, as ever, a need for more data concerning these library services.



Censorship and intellectual freedom are of concern for all library workers, and even more so for those who deliver services to people who are incarcerated. One respondent told us: “I was a librarian in a maximum-security prison.... Words cannot express how much this position has affected me, mainly due to the many injustices I witnessed there, including the rampant censorship of library materials and the devaluation of my work by prison administrators.”

More than half of respondents (62) said they agree or strongly agree that “we have encountered censorship and/or restrictions on the content of the materials.” A dozen disagreed, and 11 did not know. Follow-up remarks included the following:

“When we offered deposit collections to the jail and the juvenile detention facility, they only wanted job-and-career materials—no novels or other nonfiction.”

“People who are incarcerated do not have access to hardcover books, and content is restricted. They do not allow any content related to gang activity, mafia, erotica, true crime, etc. Children’s books are not allowed, which is challenging for some with very limited literacy skills.”

“We often get general informational materials on business startups returned as ‘establishing business through the mail.’ We get materials returned for including pen pal services, alphabets in languages other than English or Spanish, and information about Voodoo and black magic. We sometimes resend the information if we disagree with the ruling (for example, information about Voodoo is religious freedom) and often the materials are accepted.”

Respondents also alluded to self-censorship in compliance with rules set by administrators in the facilities they serve. For example, “Censorship is an unfortunate necessity in this environment. We are required to deliberately filter out materials that include depictions of violence, nudity (incl. medical), pornography, detailed maps, weaponry, hate speech and the like.” Quite a few comments touch on the subjective nature of these decisions, such as this one: “As far as we can tell, what is inappropriate is subject to the Juvenile Hall staff’s discretion and not based on any sort of criteria.” Another respondent wrote, “They have rejected materials because of the content, i.e., calling things pornographic or violent that we would not have.”

Given the differences in professional values between library and information professionals, who value intellectual freedom, and corrections officers, who prioritize facility regulations, it is no wonder that maintaining these relationships can prove difficult. This, too, was compounded by the pandemic. “They’re extremely short-staffed and we haven’t been able to find a staffer who will consistently work with us in anything other than a ‘drop the books off’ manner,” one respondent said. Another wrote, “Cooperation from the Detention Center has been a barrier to our work. Despite a positive response and interest in expanding our efforts, it can be tough to get them to approve projects and allow us to begin them.” Not all interactions with jail and prison administrators were negative. One person told us, “I want to be sure that I emphasize how vital it is that we have enthusiastic staff at the jail who are working on their end to make this happen. That has been priceless.”



The emotional impacts on library workers of providing incarceration-related services can be complicated. This was most obvious in answers to our question, “How has offering incarceration-related programs and services impacted you, specifically?” We found 25 positive responses, nine negative, and six that were both positive and negative in tone. “It’s a mixed bag,” one respondent answered. “I find it rewarding to serve those on the inside and am fortunate I get to dedicate public library services to those who need it most. However, working with a system I am fundamentally against is taxing. I often feel powerless and frustrated.”

Another response that acknowledged the highs and lows of delivering services for people negatively impacted by incarceration came from a public library in Minnesota that provides services both in-facility and in the library. They wrote: “The work we have done with incarcerated people and youth on probation has been some of the most difficult but also the most rewarding for me. It is valuable to learn about the personal stories of the people we serve—it helps us serve them better and it helps us advocate for supporting this work to others.”

“This is my life’s work,” said another respondent from California. “I know more about the world, horrors and joys, than I otherwise would.” Growing awareness tended to result also in a call to activism. For example, a respondent from Minnesota described that working with people who are incarcerated has “made me a better librarian and person. I have more compassion and empathy for people and better understand the reasons that can lead to incarceration and [have] a better understanding of what we collectively need to do to try to reduce it.” Another library worker told us, “It’s made me understand the system more and want to work harder to abolish it.”

We asked respondents, “How do you think the incarceration-related programs and services your library offers have impacted participants?” Of 58 people who answered this question, 27 stated that their work has had a positive impact on participants. None answered that their work had a negative impact, although eight were unsure of the impact of their programs. Of these 58, five respondents identified positive education-related impacts, while others mentioned equitable access to information (two), library knowledge (two), and building research skills (two). It’s not surprising that these things rose to the top, as they are the desired impacts of many library programs, but the impacts were also emotional, such as helping to alleviate boredom, escapism from their current circumstances, positive mental health impacts, and welcoming people back to their community.

Respondents described how they overcame staffing challenges and other barriers presented by the pandemic to build relationships with their patrons. “They (incarcerated patrons) are finally opening up to me and trusting that we will take them and their reading needs seriously,” one respondent told us.



ALA is spearheading a revision of the standards for these types of services, which were last updated in 1992. ALA will also focus on how libraries can better support digital illiteracies caused or exacerbated by experiencing incarceration. And please watch for more exciting news from SFPL in the next few months!

In addition, Diane Rodriguez, president of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), shared that she has appointed the Advancing Access to Justice (AA2J) Special Committee. “The purpose of the AA2J Special Committee is to promote law librarians and legal information professionals and their vital role in access to justice by providing timely authoritative legal information resources and services,” says Rodriguez. “AALL members have created many public-facing tools to assist patrons in locating relevant and authoritative legal resources as well as guides and pathfinders to assist with understanding the law so they can conduct their legal affairs and participate in democracy. The AA2J Special Committee is gathering all these resources into a single, public facing web page which will be hosted on the AALL website ( The new tool will include a nationwide directory of law libraries that serve the public, including a listing of law libraries that provide legal resource assistance to incarcerated patrons. Public law libraries often assist incarcerated individuals and their families with legal information, research assistance, and referrals to legal services. When finished, we plan to market the finished web page to public librarians, legal partners, and the public through outreach and training. Law librarians understand that legal research can be intimidating and confusing. Our goal is to expand our reach and make it easier for everyone to locate a local public law library for free legal information assistance and authoritative resources, making justice accessible to all.”

While we are thrilled to see a rise in programs and services for people negatively impacted by incarceration, there is much more work to be done, especially in shifting attitudes and awareness about the role that libraries can play in creating more equitable communities. Library workers can act at a personal level by getting involved with organizations such as AbLA, Library Services to the Justice Involved, and the PLSN, a volunteer organization that answers letters from incarcerated people, or can begin by learning about these issues and then modeling good practices like using person-first language.

At their best, programs and services for people who are incarcerated have great returns for patrons and the library workers offering them. As one respondent closed out their survey, “I’d like to reiterate how rewarding the experience of working with the jail has been. The project is only a year old, but we’ve already touched hundreds of lives. I look forward to continuing the partnership and hope we can advertise it more widely in order to generate community support.”

The survey, and the results reported in this article, are only a beginning. With respondents’ permission, data from this survey will be utilized by the SFPL team behind the Mellon Foundation–funded “Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People” project to illustrate where and what types of library services are available to people who are incarcerated on an online, interactive map. This will allow librarians to find models of services, and people who are supporting incarcerated loved ones to find resources available through libraries.

Even without launching formal programs and services for people affected by the PIC, all libraries are positioned to ensure that all members in their communities have access to information and opportunities, and should consider how their policies and practices support or further marginalize people who are incarcerated and their friends and families. Responses to our survey indicate that library staff are well aware of the ways that incarceration is shaped by larger injustices—racism, classism, homo- and transphobia—and see their work as a way libraries can champion programs and services that reduce and eliminate cycles of harm and injustice. 



We are deeply grateful to the people who responded to our survey for sharing about their experiences in providing and learning about services to people negatively impacted by incarceration, and to Library Journal for amplifying these findings. This work would not have been possible without the Library Research Service,, who helped to design and host our survey, and to analyze the findings. SFPL is extremely grateful to the Mellon Foundation for the opportunity to extend this work through the “Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People” grant, and to Nili Ness for their support with editing.


Chelsea Jordan-Makely is a library director, researcher, and consultant based in western Massachusetts; Jeanie Austin is a Jail and Reentry Services Librarian at the San Francisco Public Library and is the author of Library Services and Incarceration (ALA); and Charissa Brammer is Director, Library Research Service, Colorado State Library.

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