Prisoners Read More Library Books Than Do Non-Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Prisoners have long been relatively active library users. In 1863, the Prison Association of New York reported on the operation of the prison library in New York’s Sing Sing state prison:

About two-thirds of the convicts (at present 550 to 600) {in 1863, Sing Sing’s held 837 inmates} make use of the library. The books are returned and others given out every third week. The prisoners come in squads, and each selects a volume (they can take out but one at a time) for himself. … In addition to his volume of secular reading, any convict may take out one or two religious books; and these he can return at any time and get others. There are about one hundred who patronize the religious department of the library.^

Assuming that religious-book borrowers, who comprise about a sixth of all library users, borrowed two religious books per three weeks in addition to borrowing one secular book per three weeks, library users on average borrowed 23 books per year. Circulation data from four other prison libraries about a decade later indicate that about 80% of prisoners used the prison library. Prison library users borrowed 42 books per year. Public library users about this time borrowed an estimated 17 books per year from public libraries.^ Public library users borrowed books less than half as frequently as prison library users did.

Prisoners’ interest in books in Sing Sing state prison in 1863 wasn’t exceptional. Prison culture has been described as primarily oral.^ Nonetheless, even in the nineteenth century many prisoners were reading books. In 1848 in Auburn State Prison, New York, the chaplain reported that 62% of prisoners could read when they entered prison. Another 23% learned to read while in prison.^ Across U.S. state prisons about 1875, 48% of prisoners could read better than “read with difficulty” and 78% of prisoners used the prison library.

Prisoners’ interest in books was greater than prison libraries’ provision of books. A prisoner in Sing Sing Prison in New York State from 1897 to 1903 reported that prisoners were allowed to borrow only one book per week. Secondary lending was forbidden. That prisoner observed:

this rule of lending books is simply disregarded (although the objectionable chaplain I have referred to attempted in vain to enforce it), so that by a system of exchange a group of readers can have half a dozen books a week, and by harmonizing their applications can have this supply assorted, some fiction, history, poetry, philosophy – in fact, the whole range of good literature.^

A social-scientific study of prison libraries in 1918 observed:

The prison library problem is not one of readers, but of books to supply the demand. In spite of the dead-wood gathered from attics and from Sunday-school libraries – the out-of-date religious books, and the moral tales, — the prisoners’ reading is far in excess of the circulation statistics from other libraries.^

An officer at the Indiana Reformatory at Jeffersonville stated that, from 1903 to 1909, the number of volumes in the library increased from 3500 to “more than 7000 volumes that were up-to-date and from seventy-five to one hundred of the best weekly and monthly magazines, all of which were catalogued and indexed, and a catalogue placed in the hands of each inmate of the institution.” As a result of this improvement, prison library book circulation rose four-fold to 182,000 volumes per year, or 165 volumes circulated per inmate per year.^ Prisoners also acquired their own books. While prison libraries held many more books per user than did public libraries, prison library books did not merely sit on library shelves.

Prison library authorities noted that prisoners used prison libraries much more than others used public libraries. In 1938, the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) declared:

A significant indication of the constructive value of the library service in the Federal prisons is found in the fact that the average inmate reads five to ten times as many books as the average citizen using public libraries.^

Other authorities made similar claims.^ ^ ^ For fiscal year 1939, the BOP’s Director reported that “average circulation per reader was 85 books.”^ ^ Approximately 75% of federal penitentiary and reformatory inmates used the library.^ That implies circulation of 61 books per inmate per year. A survey of prison libraries in large prisons (holding more than 500 prisoners) about 1949 found:

Most state {prison} libraries circulated less than 30 books per inmate, with a few circulating as high as 40 or more a year. The majority of the federal {prison} libraries circulated approximately 40 books per year.^

More detailed statistics for 1938 indicate that, for reporting prisons, inmates in federal prisons borrowed on average 45 books per year, compared to 29 books per year for inmates in state prisons. The corresponding circulation statistics limited to federal and state prison library users were 61 books per user in federal prisons and 43 books per user in state prisons. Public library book circulation about this time was 14 books per public library user per year.^

Prisoners’ use of prison libraries seems to have fallen from 1938 to 1977. Book circulation per prisoner can be estimated better than book circulation per prison library user. From 1938 to 1977, circulation per prisoner fell from 45 books per year to 15 books per year in federal prisons. The corresponding trend in state prisons was from 31 book per year to 17 books per year. Growth in time prisoners spent watching television may have caused that fall in reading.

Despite an apparent reduction in prisoners’ library use across the twentieth century, prisoners remained much more active library users than the general public. In 1977, public library circulation per person served was 5.2. That was about a third of the level of prisoners’ library use. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literary indicated that 66% of prisoners used the prison library monthly or more frequently. The corresponding library use figure for non-prisoners was 35%.

For more than a century, libraries have been more significant to prisoners than to the general public. From no latter than 1875 to the present, prison libraries have held many more books per prisoner than public libraries have held books per non-prisoner. Prison libraries have also circulated many more books per prisoner per year than public libraries have circulated books per non-prisoner per year. Prisoners’ relatively extensive experience of reading books is an under-appreciated aspect of prisoners’ communicative position.

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