Libraries in prisons provide opportunities for some of our country’s most disadvantaged citizens to engage with literature, information and the world outside prison walls. Last year, there were more than 33,000 adult prisoners in corrective services custody in Australia, with national imprisonment rates reaching a ten-year high (ABS 2014). Prison libraries have a pivotal role in serving the educational, recreational and other information needs of prisoners (Lehmann 2000). Over 59% of Victorian prisoners have literacy levels requiring intensive support (Victorian Ombudsman 2014), and similar figures can be found across Australia. The prison library can play a role in raising the literacy levels of prisoners and can therefore be considered essential to the rehabilitation of prisoners. Access to information can also assist prisoners preparing to subsequently re-establish themselves in the community.
In 2015, the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) established a working group to review and update the Minimum Standard Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners. This was prompted by a recent ALIA initiative to rewrite their suite of guidelines to ensure currency of information and efficiency of practice. As part of this project, it was recognised the guidelines for prison libraries had not been updated since they were first developed in1990. A working group of prison librarians, researchers, legal experts and interested individuals from across Australia was formed to revise and update the guidelines.
The efforts of the working group to create workable, realistic and yet aspirational guidelines for how these libraries should be developed and maintained has taken us inside prisons to connect with the people who operate and use them. Members of the profession operating in prison libraries often work in relative isolation from others of the profession and in a resource-constrained environment. The guidelines are designed to assist with the planning of new prison libraries as well as in the evaluation and development of existing services. They are based in part on the third edition of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners (Lehmann & Locke, 2005).
This paper describes the activities of the working group, the importance of establishing workable guidelines and the challenges we have faced in achieving this. We will also discuss our successes in connecting and engaging with one another and in the production of a set of professional guidelines that will better support the prison library sector.
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