Prisoner-Owned Books in 19th-Century Prisons

face of a prisoner

In addition to reading books borrowed from prison libraries, prisoners in nineteenth-century U.S. prisons acquired many of their own books. In the fall of 1848, the chaplain of Sing Sing State Prison in New York reported:

many of the convicts have private libraries furnished by themselves and their friends. But no book is allowed, that has not been approved by the chaplain. 172 convicts {out of 610} in the male prison have private libraries, greater or less, from 55 volumes to a single one, each; the whole comprising 1200 volumes.^

The prison library at that time held 825 books.^ Thus about a quarter of the convicts had private libraries, with a total number of books about 50% greater than the total number of books in the prison library. The chaplain of the Auburn State Prison noted that the convicts possessed “bad books.” He described his professional challenge in attempting to eliminate bad books:

“bad books,” in the form of “popular novels,” “histories of robbers, pirates,” &c.; books concerning which Lord Brougham said, that he “sometimes doubted whether that education which gave the ability to read them, did not do more hurt than good.” … These works, it is but justice to myself and the officers of the prison to say, were found in the hands of the convicts when we entered upon our duties. The law now makes it my duty to take these “bad books” from the convicts, and to deposit them with the agent. For this purpose, the cells have been frequently visited, though to little effect, as the prisoners generally conceal them about their persons or in their shops. Hence it is quite difficult for the chaplain to obtain possession of them, without being more of a police officer than seems desirable for one in his position. A considerable number, however, have been obtained. Many others have been burned or otherwise disposed of by the convicts, rather than that they should fall into the hands of the chaplain or agent.^

The chaplain reported that, out of 452 prisoners, 163 “read novels before they came here”, while 110 “read novels since they came here.”^ Reading novels was considered to be morally dangerous. A year later the chaplain lamented:

a considerable number of the prisoners who in their choice of books, almost uniformly reject those that are best calculated to improve their minds and elevate their morals, and either select from the library those works that are least instructive and useful, or devote leisure hours to the perusal of such novels, romances, &c. as they can clandestinely obtain from each other, and from those who have access to the interior of the prison. While the facilities for procuring these works have been considerably diminished during the last two years, it is well known to those who are conversant with the facts in the case, that the convicts still find means to secure a tolerable supply of the later issues of this kind of reading.^

Being in prison limits opportunities for earning money and for searching retail outlets in order to acquire books. Yet as early as 1848, prisoners succeeded in acquiring a considerable number of books from sources other than a prison library. In 1864, the Prison Association of New York noted of prisoners held in Sing Sing prison:

It is an interesting fact that during the year no less than thirty convicts have expended of their own money sums varying from one to eighteen dollars in the purchase of books.^

The number of prisoners who could afford such expenditure was probably a small share of the total number of prisoners. Prison libraries created equal opportunities for prisoners to read books. Despite their extensive development, prison libraries in the nineteenth century weren’t sufficient to satisfy all prisoners demands for books. Prisoners privately acquired a large number of their own books.

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