Prison Libraries Developed Rapidly Relative to Public Libraries

face of a prisoner

In nineteenth-century U.S., prison libraries developed rapidly relative to public libraries. The Walnut Street prison in Philadelphia had a prison library not later than 1809.^ The New York State Prison had a prison library that circulated books to convicts before 1819.^ In 1846, when told that prisoners in the state prison at Alton, Illinois, did not have a library, prisoners in the state prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts, spontaneously donated 400 bound volumes, plus tracts and pamphlets, to the Alton chaplain, .^ In the fall of 1848, the Chaplain of the Sing Sing prison in New York reported:

The library of the male prison consists of 825 volumes, and of the female prison of about 500 volumes, besides a Bible and a hymn book in each cell, and a large number of arithmetic and spelling books. All these are in a sound condition, fit to be distributed and read.^

A leading authority on prisons reported:

In 1847, we find libraries existing in most of the state prisons of the country, one of which – that of Ohio – is reported as containing 3,000 volumes.^ ^

States with relatively large populations of prisoners – New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois – established prison libraries prior to 1850. A majority of prisoners in U.S. state prisons probably had access to library services by 1850. Specific information indicates that state prison libraries existed prior to 1860 in 19 out of 33 states that then formed the United States. In 1875, the Eastern State Penitentiary library contained 8,737 volumes. It was then the largest prison library in the U.S. A mid-sized public library in 1875 had 1,050 volumes.^ A mid-sized state prison library in 1875 had 1,938 volumes. The typical state prison library was thus about twice as large as the typical public library. In 1875, state prison libraries held 3.0 books per prisoner. Public libraries, in contrast, held 0.5 books per person outside prisons. Nineteenth-century U.S. prison libraries were well-developed relative to public libraries.

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