Libraries and Information Access in New York State Prisons (Working Title)

by Jay Rosen

For this paper, I will examine the current state of prison libraries and offsite library services across New York State, with an eye towards recommending best practices and identifying critical issues in the provision of prison library services. I will begin with an overview of New York State’s prison libraries as they exist today, reviewing their structures, services offered, and apparent limitations. I will also examine outreach services offered by library systems including New York Public Library’s Correctional Services Department, as well as efforts by grassroots organizations such as Books Through Bars NYC to deliver books and other materials to incarcerated people. I hope to speak with library staff who help coordinate these services, including NYPL Correctional Services staff Emily Jacobson and Sarah Ball, and will also reach out to fellow students in Pratt’s Prison Library Support Network to learn more about their volunteer efforts and their thoughts on these issues.

In examining library services in New York State’s prisons, I will look at the funding structures and bureaucratic and legal hurdles that enable or limit them, and suggest ways that these services might be strengthened going forward. In seeking a theoretical grounding for this paper, I will explore whether Critical Librarianship might usefully inform work being done in prison libraries. I will also seek out research on the relationship between prison library services and recidivism rates, the role of public libraries for individuals re-entering society, and any publicly accessible feedback from incarcerated people on existing prison library services in New York State.

Throughout the course of this paper, I plan to rely on literature review, government information, and actual conversations with local library staff and volunteers working in relevant areas. I anticipate a couple possible challenges. The first is scope. Focusing on prison library services across New York State might prove to be too broad; if this is the case, I will limit my inquiry to prisons libraries in and around New York City. The second is the potential dearth of research on the impact of library services on incarcerated people. If I am unable to find much information on this, I might consider how such research could be successfully designed and carried out in the context of New York State. I will also emphasize research that outlines relationships between higher education programs in prisons (such as the Bard Prison Initiative) and recidivism rates, as well as research concerning the impact of Pell Grants in prisons. In recommending best practices, I will look to the efforts of Scandinavian prison libraries.  

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