Outside and In: Services for People Impacted By Incarceration

From remote reference to technology access, libraries across the country are providing a range of services for people and families affected by incarceration.

How libraries are providing services for people impacted by incarceration

“It is not only the books that I appreciate; more important to me is the appreciation that I have for you that you would even think of, or care about, other people that are incarcerated. To many people, except for family or close friends, prisoners are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

As this quote from Dear Books to Prisoners: Letters from the Incarcerated attests, access to reading materials is a lifeline for people who are incarcerated. Yet the needs of people in jails, prisons, and other detention centers often go overlooked, in part because of lack of funding but also because of what Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA), has described as “the egregious invisibility of the detained.” This othering mindset has catastrophic impacts on access to information, books, and other services that libraries of all types could provide for the millions of people who are incarcerated and detained.

While the population of people currently in jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons in the United States hovers around 2.3 million, the number of people directly impacted by the justice system is estimated to include about 6.5 million in total, according to data from the Prison Policy Institute and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many people are also directly impacted by restrictions placed on them during probation, supervised release, or parole. Scholars and activists commonly refer to this interlocking network as the “prison-industrial complex” (PIC).

Incarceration works through and reinforces systemic oppression, heavily shaping the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people, and people living in poverty and/or in public. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 article, “Mapping the Margins,” published in the Stanford Law Review, and Crenshaw’s ongoing work make clear that people with more than one of these identities are at amplified risk of being impacted adversely, directly or indirectly, by incarceration.

“Tough on crime” political rhetoric about “criminals” and “ex-offenders” exacerbates these problems, and thus restricts the services available for people within or recently released from prisons, jails, and other detention centers and recovering from their experiences. These effects are not limited to urban areas; Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Sabramanian’s Vera Institute report, Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America, shows that the growth of the PIC has been most prominent in rural communities.

In the 1970s, there were less than 500,000 people in state and federal prisons, about .0002 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 2.3 million people today, 0.7 percent of the population. This doesn’t include people under state supervision, which brings the total percentage directly impacted to over two percent of the population. Library services in jails and prisons have not kept pace with this expansion, often referred to as mass incarceration, and have seen cutbacks because of rhetoric that positioned people who were incarcerated as unworthy of public resources. We find vestiges of those attitudes in the largely uncontested power of jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons to restrict information access. This is not surprising; Mariame Kaba and Erica Meiners, in their Jacobin article, “Arresting the Carceral State,” have written that “[a] carceral logic, or a punishment mindset, crept into nearly every government function, including those seemingly removed from prisons.” We see evidence of this in the limited amount of library services available to people who are incarcerated.

REACHING OUT TO ALL AGES (l.-r.) Colorado’s Read to the Children program in action, Fresh Start@Your Library Program Manager Jondhi Harrell talks to a patron, Long Branch Free Public Library Social Worker David Perez and Director Tonya Garcia with a Fresh Start display



Though data from ALA shows upward of 12,000 public and academic libraries across the United States, as of 2019, few of these provide formalized services to people in jails, prisons, or other detention centers. A review of literature spanning from the 1970s to the present lays bare the lack of existing programs, and of data collection pertaining to these services. It also shows the gap between policies, such as the 1994 Public Library Manifesto and ALA’s Prisoners’ Right To Read, and practices.

Following in the footsteps of a few others who have researched library services to people impacted by the PIC, the authors of this paper scoured the web and solicited examples via library listservs in an attempt to create a comprehensive list. We found 45 active examples of library services from “outside” libraries (as opposed to libraries within jails, prisons, or detention camps) to people in these facilities. There may well be more. Libraries offering programs that serve people impacted by the PIC may not be eager to promote them, either out of a need to preserve fragile relationships with administrators of jails, juvenile detention centers, or prisons, or because of unfavorable public opinion. Furthermore, information about the types of services offered is not collected at state or national levels. This lack of documentation has a compound effect: little citable precedent for library services to this population, and few examples to emulate.



The authors coded and sorted examples of programs by the types and sizes of libraries involved, partners, funding, and types of services offered, including family literacy, in-facility, reentry, programming, recreational reading, reference, and others.

Sorting information about library services to people who are or have been incarcerated and their families proved challenging, not only because of the lack of information available but also because some programs are not static, and some partnerships and collaborations extend across organizational and even geographic lines. For example, the Fresh Start Program, an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–funded program involving the New Jersey State Library (NJSL), Thomas Edison State University, other partners in New Jersey, and the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), builds from and extends existing library services at those locations. It also intersects with other family literacy programs offered through NJSL and FLP. Though this may confound quantification, it shows that libraries can work across institutional boundaries to get books and information to patrons in jails, prisons, and other detention centers. “We couldn’t have done it without these partnerships,” Peggy Birdsall Cadigan, NJSL deputy state librarian, tells us. “It really does take a village.”

PRISON STATS From the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, 2020



We found 35 examples of public libraries that provide some level of services or programming for people who are incarcerated. Of these, seven are large systems, with service areas of 1,000,000 people or more: Contra Costa County Library, CA; Montgomery County Public Library, MD; Hennepin County Library (HCL), MN; Free Library of Philadelphia; and Brooklyn Public Library Justice Initiatives, New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library in New York. Each provides direct services to people in prisons or jails. Dan Marcou, with HCL, suggests, “Outreach can be scalable based on the library’s resources, [such as] on-site book collections and weekly service, one-shot family literacy and employment workshops, or simply sharing a promotional brochure that helps people at the facility become more aware of how the library can help with reentry needs after release. Libraries can also offer programs and resources for families affected by incarceration.”

We also found a number of large-scale collaborations between libraries and other stakeholders who aim to provide services to people at the point of reentry or keep them out of jails and prisons altogether. Several of these have outside funders, including IMLS. For examples, see “Restorative Libraries.”

Seven of the projects we found involved academic libraries. In addition to NJSL’s “Fresh Start@Your Library” partnership with Thomas Edison State University, the Information Justice Institute (IJI), based at Chicago State University, “is exploring extant effective practices across different types of libraries; and considering how services could potentially be adapted to provide greater support for those confronting complex challenges such as poverty, incarceration, and reentry,” according to Assistant Professor Rae-Anne Montague.



Around two-thirds of the libraries in our data set serve populations greater than 100,000 but less than a million. Chesapeake Public Library (CPL), VA, provides services to people in three area facilities “to educate, to entertain, and to improve quality-of-life…we have the opportunity to transform lives,” according to Zachary Elder, CPL’s deputy director. Outreach includes holding reentry career fairs, presenting to staff and inmates on library services, and offering legal information and reference services, as well as plans to teach early literacy skills to parents.



Nine of the programs we found are geared toward youth who are incarcerated. Of these, seven provide books to juvenile detention facilities. Tutoring and other programs are also represented. The Alameda County Library (ACL), CA, which serves a population of 587,000, runs “Write To Read,” which includes “a well-stocked main library in Juvenile Hall as well as small libraries in each of the hall’s 12 living units,” according to the program’s website. “Start with a Story,” a concurrent initiative that has been discontinued due to the pandemic, provided books, story times, and outreach to the hundreds of children who visit their parents at two Alameda county jails. Smaller libraries are also able to offer services to incarcerated youth. Along with outreach to incarcerated adults, CPL partners with the Chesapeake Juvenile Services, an initiative that program lead Jes Chatham describes as “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

An IMLS-funded initiative from the University of Washington Information School serves as an example of a university-led initiative to support youth who are incarcerated. The purpose of the program, as stated in the project proposal, is to provide leadership opportunities by connecting participants with the digital arts and virtual reality industry.

Family literacy programs are another service that libraries offer to support people who are incarcerated and their families. These programs may dovetail with ongoing services, as at HCL or Brooklyn Public Library, or stand alone. The Colorado State Library’s “Read to the Children” program began in 1999, when recordings of parents reading books were made on cassettes. Today, it is available in every Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) facility and is not limited to parents. The goal, says Erin Boyington, regional librarian with CDOC, is “to go all-digital to make the recordings more accessible for caregivers. I would also like to see incarcerated participants get the opportunity to edit their own videos using Chromebooks, which are already available in a few CDOC facilities for education.” Read to the Children is exemplary in its approaches to advocacy. Boyington notes, “The more you can show correctional officials how the program ties into their mandates, the easier a long-term program will be to establish.”

Providing people who are incarcerated with access to technology is a pressing need. For example, at the Queens Public Library, the Immediate Access Technology Program provided smartphones and training to people recently released from prisons. These programs may be critical to a person’s ability to be successful upon release. As Joe Garcia explained in the essay “Why Prisoners Like Me Need Internet Access,” in Technology Review, “It can be hard to keep up with changes in technology even when you’re experiencing them firsthand. When you’re locked away, it’s virtually impossible.”



One simple way for libraries to support the families of people who are incarcerated or recently released is by posting resource lists. The Santa Clara County Library System, CA; Hartford Public Library, CT; HCL; Seattle Public Library; and others have taken this initiative. A resource list curated by Arapahoe Libraries, CO, is noteworthy for its focus on families. It includes web resources and books for children that depict loved ones detained in jails or prisons. Other libraries offer downloadable and print reentry guides, such as Connections from NYPL, available in English and in Spanish. There is high demand for this type of resource: NYPL distributes 13,000 copies a year to people who are incarcerated, patrons at local libraries, and service providers, and the online version was accessed more than 4,000 times in February. Libraries can also link to resource lists created by other organizations, such as the “National Prison Resource List,” from the Prison Book Project at prisonbookproject.com, or “Reentry and Employment Resources for Justice-Involved Individuals,” from the Library of Congress (available at guides.loc.gov/reentry-resources/employment). Libraries should also ensure that their collections include books about mass incarceration, especially those that represent the voices of people with lived experiences of incarceration.

Reference by mail is another service opportunity. Many libraries receive letters requesting information from people who are incarcerated, sometimes from across the country. These requests represent the limited amount of access available inside jails and prisons as information is increasingly born digital, and as resources that were historically provided in print are moved online. Access to online resources is extremely uncommon in jails and prisons, and in the few instances where it might be available to a small group it is supervised and exists under strict time limits.

Librarians and staff who receive letters from people who are incarcerated are sometimes unsure how or even whether they are allowed to respond, or might see responding to requests as outside of the scope of their library’s services. Drawing from the work of established Reference by Mail services can provide guidance and opportunities for creating more information access inside jails and prisons. These services are available through Carson City Library, NV; Harris County Public Library, TX; San Francisco Public Library (SFPL); St. Louis County Public Library, MO; and the tri-library system of Brooklyn, Queens, and New York public libraries. Each provides the service for people incarcerated in their state. SFPL collaborates with other libraries to create a consortium of respondents from various systems and areas of expertise. In response to the obvious need for more Reference by Mail services across the country, NYPL staff have created the Reference by Mail Toolkit [see box] to support those who are new to this work, and coordinate a network of library workers who are already involved.

Librarians and staff who provide these services are enthusiastic about their impact and the value to the profession. LIS educators have incorporated Reference by Mail requests into their coursework. These services sometimes receive up to 100 requests a week from local incarcerated patrons.

However, there is a real need for more services of this type. One of the authors of this piece, working with Melissa Villa-Nicholas, emphasizes that a Reference by Mail service is one way libraries can begin to move away from how they have actively excluded groups of patrons (see “Information Provision and the Carceral State”).



No matter what services a library provides to a jail, prison, or other detention center, building and maintaining trust with partnering institutions is essential to any program’s livelihood.

Librarian Specialist Rachel Forbes from Contra Costa County Library says, “Partnerships are vitally important. I would start with reaching out to the schools located inside the facilities. I found that the school department in my facility has a lot of knowledge when it comes to what the kids need and want, so I like to ask where they need assistance. It is not always easy because there are many security clearances, rules, and policies that need to be followed, but I constantly remind myself to be patient. Outside organizations and groups are incredibly generous and often are willing to help the library when it comes to reaching incarcerated youth.”

Libraries should also set out expectations for the people using these services. When asked to offer advice to other libraries building similar programs, CPL’s Elder responds, “Train staff in trauma-informed care, and work closely with the staff at the facilities to tailor your services to the inmates’ needs and interests.” HCL’s Marcou notes that “Every library can play a role in big or small ways to better serve people impacted by incarceration and, by doing so, help to improve public safety and reduce disparities in their communities.”

Reducing barriers to access by using people-first language, waiving fines, and allowing users to sign up for library cards without a driver’s license can help ensure that libraries are welcoming and accessible. Other actions include holding space for art created by people who are or were detained, providing community service hour opportunities to those on probation or parole, and revising hiring practices to reduce discrimination against people who have been incarcerated. Tonya Garcia, director at the Long Branch Free Public Library, NJ, explained how Fresh Start was revised based on feedback: “It wasn’t until surveying our community that we were made aware of what should have been obvious: privacy concerns. Returning citizens preferred to discuss their past histories and current challenges in private. So I revised the program to include individual sessions.” When the library started offering discreet, one-on-one appointments with social workers, they were inundated with requests for help.



For library workers whose institutions are not yet ready to launch services for people who are incarcerated, there are still ways to learn and help. At the individual level, reading about incarceration and library services and the experiences of incarcerated people provides greater context for understanding how systems of incarceration work, and how everyone is impacted. Librarians and library staff can hold informal book groups and explore how materials about incarceration are relevant to library practice. There are many reading lists on mass incarceration available, including these from Book Riot and This Book That Book.

There are many opportunities to volunteer with existing groups, such as those that offer information access or coordinate pen pals. Books to Prisoners Seattle provides an updated list of organizations. These groups are volunteer-run and donation-operated, fulfill individual requests from incarcerated people for books, and often are in need of more volunteers, funding, or donations.

Increasing personal and community-level awareness of how jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons create barriers to information access is one way to engage in advocacy alongside people who are directly impacted by incarceration. This has proven invaluable in the wake of efforts to ban access to physical books inside of jails and prisons across the country. PEN America’s 2019 report, Literature Locked Up, details some of these ongoing efforts to ban access to reading materials, which it calls “the Nation’s largest book ban.” Eldon Ray James’ 2020 article “Prisoners Pay To Read,” in American Libraries, outlines the extortive costs people who are incarcerated pay to access ebooks, including those in the public domain. Coordinated groups of advocates have been able to resist this level of censorship through demonstrations and editorials, further raising public awareness of the barriers incarcerated people face as they attempt to access information and books. As suggested at the Library Services to the Incarcerated and Detained (LSJI) roundtable discussion at the 2021 ALA Annual Conference, reporting instances of censorship in public libraries to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is one important way that libraries and individuals can help to raise awareness and share the struggles and successes of their collective efforts.

Please contribute to the growing list of programs by providing information about your library’s services through the survey, hosted by the Colorado State Library’s Office of Library Research Services.

A simple first step in staying involved and learning more is to join the LSJI listserv, where prison, academic, special, and public librarians and staff share resources, news, and insights. The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) has a working group on prison libraries, with about 50 members. An IFLA Library Services to People with Special Needs Section working group is completing the first draft of a revision of its 2005 Guidelines for Library Services to prisoners.

Other groups such as the Prison Library Support Network support work to get resources to people in prisons, while the Abolitionist Library Association organizes to support library workers pushing back against the PIC and imagining alternatives to incarceration.

There is much more libraries can do to support people whose lives have been upended by mass incarceration and its lingering stigma. As Garcia offers, “No one should be defined by their worst day. We may not be able to undo what was done in the past, but we can certainly take ownership of today and create a new version of the future we once imagined.” Libraries can be a part of this work, and play an important role to help people impacted by incarceration access the resources they need.

Please share your story

Does your library provide services to people who are incarcerated or otherwise impacted by incarceration?  If so, please let us know! Complete the survey, which will inform a future LJ feature on library services and incarceration. Thanks to Colorado State Library’s Office of Library Research Service for hosting the survey.

Patron Responses to Colorado’s Read to the Children

I love the Read to the Children program. I’m so very grateful it’s been opened up for aunts/uncles. My own children are grown and don’t have children of their own yet. I’ve always been very close with my sister’s children, and this program has allowed the younger ones to know me, who would otherwise not recognize me except through photos.

I love it. It’s one of the best things the prison system has to offer. It helps us prisoners to read better; it encourages us to spend more time in the library. It helps our children to read more and read better. It helps strengthen our relationships with our children, grandchildren. I can’t say enough about this program. I wish to see it grow and get better and never have it taken away from us.

NYPL Reference by Mail Toolkit

The guidelines developed by the NYPL Reference by Mail program as part of a living “toolkit” could apply to nearly any initiative a library or individual might undertake:

  • Recognize the humanity of each patron.
  • Communicate clearly and respectfully with patrons.
  • Honor our patrons’ curiosity and their questions, regardless of the topic or gravity of their inquiries.
  • Work hard at removing personal bias and remember that providing information is the task at hand, not judging one’s character or intentions.
  • Never stop learning about incarceration and institutionalization.

These pointers, and more, are available at TinyURL.com/NyplLettersToolkit.

Recent Resources

American Library Association
Prisoners’ Right To Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Jeanie Austin
Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access (coming soon from ALA)

Nicholas Higgins
Get Inside: Responsible Jail and Prison Library Service

Jane Garner
Exploring the Roles and Practices of Libraries in Prisons: International Perspectives

Lisa Krolak (UNESCO)
Books Beyond Bars: The Transformative Potential of Prison Libraries

James Tager (PEN America)
“Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban”

Chelsea Jordan-Makely is a library director and research consultant in western Massachusetts. She has worked in public, academic, and state libraries and is a coleader of the ALA interest group Library Services to the Justice Involved (LSJI). Dr. Jeanie Austin is a Jail and Reentry Services Librarian at San Francisco Public Library. They have researched and published on library services and incarceration for over a decade.

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