In the clink

with 6 comments

Prison is one of those places I never thought I’d go to. I don’t really fancy life behind bars and I hope I’ll never have cause to visit any of my family or friends there either, you know? But some librarians work in Her Majesty’s Prisons around the UK. In fact, the closest library to the library where I work is a prison library. A Category B men’s prison, the jail serves the local courts and has a high prisoner turnover rate. I arranged to visit for the day to find out more about what prison libraries and librarians do…


Perhaps it’s a bit obvious, but the biggest difference that struck me about my time at the prison library was the importance of security. In prison, everything revolves around it. Walking to the library, we travelled through pairs of locked doors every few metres around the prison buildings. Alongside the librarians, prison officers assigned to the library were present at all times to ensure the security of both library staff and prisoners. Due to their customer group, stealing of library property was an issue and prisoners are unable to access the internet, word processing software or printing facilities. Security issues also extended to the stock that the library offered. There are a number of banned items and subjects which you won’t find in the prison library’s collection, from the obvious – books about bombmaking, for example – to the ones you wouldn’t have thought of, like the Igguldens’ Dangerous Book for Boys.

Customer journey

This heightened awareness of security stretched to the customer experience of using the library. The customer journey begins when the prisoner fills out an application form, or ‘app’ to visit the library. Each wing has appointed times when library officers collect those who have filled out an app. The prison officer takes the men to the library for around half an hour and then the group are escorted back to their accommodation or their next activity. I found it interesting that the customer experience of using the prison library begins sometimes days before their visit. This had its own unique set of problems – sometimes when called to go to the library, the men are busy, for example. If prisoners forget to fill out a library app or are unavailable when the library officers come to collect them, they are unable to return their books on time. These were issues that library staff were debating on the day I visited and I hope they continue to investigate ways to resolve this.

Prison libraries and public libraries

Something that I found surprising was the close relationship between the prison libraries and the public libraries in the area. The library service, like the educational provision in the prison, is tendered out. The county council currently provides library services to the prison and the library staff are employed and managed by the council. Therefore, there were a number of crossover points – one of the part-time librarians working at the prison also works for the main public library in the city and the prison and public libraries use the same library card system. The prison libraries in the county use the same library management system as the public libraries and borrow books from there. This close relationship between the services means that data protection is paramount. Library Orderlies (prisoners who work within the prison library) can use the library management system, but can’t access any information on patrons within the public library network. Similarly, only very basic information – surname, current cell and prisoner number – is held on the library management system about the prison library’s customers.

Although I wasn’t aware that the two systems were so closely linked in my area, it appeared that this had a number of benefits – the library is able to provide access to a wide range of material, and there is continuity between the service provided within the prison and libraries within the local area.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I turned up at the prison gates, but I found the atmosphere within the prison to be calm and controlled, and the prisoners seemed to respect and value the service that the library offered.

I’m not sure that prison libraries are for me, but it’s not so bad in the clink.


Written by missrachelsmith

September 15, 2011 at 09:44

6 Responses

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  1. I worked in a prison for a week as an admin temp and absolutely hated it! Something to do with being behind all those locked doors I think. The prison staff I met were the nicest people though, and so friendly.

    I thought I’d never go back to a prison voluntarily but after reading this I do think that it would be interesting to visit a prison library. Particularly to find out more about the links with public libraries.


    September 15, 2011 at 14:32

  2. Really interesting post, thank you. I’ve never visited a prison library, I think it would be fascinating to visit, but not too sure about actually working in one!

    Annie Johnson (@Annie_Bob)

    September 15, 2011 at 15:31

  3. I had a job interview as a prison librarian, probably quite glad not to get it!


    September 15, 2011 at 15:44

    • Interesting responses, Michelle, Annie and Rachel (good name!) – I’d definitely recommend visiting a prison library if you get the chance. As you say, Michelle, the prison staff were very friendly and welcoming, and it was really interesting to see how a library operates in such a different environment to the institution I work in.


      September 16, 2011 at 08:27

  4. Hi Rachel,

    I arranged a visit to a women’s prison called Bronzefield a while ago myself too. I found it to be absolutely fascinating and would jump at the chance to visit a men’s prison too. I have a lot of respect for prison library staff who I think do a great job in often quite challenging circumstances.

    Anyway the lady who helped me arrange the visit wrote a nice account of her job here I thought:



    • i work in a prison library, and i would not thank you to work in a public library. i love my job!!


      September 16, 2011 at 16:25

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