“If you have an ILL arrangement with a public library would you prevent someone from ordering murder mysteries (especially since it seems like they are in virtually all collections as donations or library purchases)? I can understand and support the idea that the correctional library might focus purchasing dollars on more positive materials; I am not sure I would be able to explain why if allowed by the administration an inmate would be barred from ordering that stuff through ILL.”

This comment is quite similar to a student post in the 2008 class, except that the answer is included in the question:

“…if allowed by the administration….”

If the Department advances no reason why this material should be forbidden, then the Librarian has no administrative support; therefore there’s nothing you can do. When inmates are permitted to buy these books for themselves, they’re certainly free to request them thru ILL.

I can trace back the source of my attitude about such material to one morning years ago when I received a call from one of the ILL librarians from the public library we deal with. She was concerned about a couple ‘true crime’ title. “Are you joking? Do you really let them read this kind of stuff?” It was the first time I’d heard a member of the public objecting to the type of material that inmates were reading. We talked about it at some length, and it gave me something to think about.

After that conversation, I made this part of our library procedures: If the Librarian believes that a request runs counter to the legitimate penological objectives of the Department, the request will be denied and the inmate will be called to the library and informed. He then may appeal to the Superintendent, and the Superintendent may over-rule the Librarian.

Since that addition to our procedures, I’ve had that exchange with probably a half-dozen inmates, and I’ve never been directed to get the books in (no doubt the inmates had someone buy them and send them in….)

But with me, it’s a matter of conscience, and if the Superintendent ever does overrule me, then that’s on the Superintendent, and I can live with that.

Again, it comes down to “Remember whom you’re helping.” This is a special population of people with very specific behavioral problems who have destroyed lives, including their own. Ask yourself, “Whom am I helping by providing this book/ magazine/ newspaper/ DVD/ etc.?”

You also must ask:

  • “Whom am I hurting by providing this material?”
  • “Does this further an inmate’s unstructured socialization?”
  • “Would sensible, reasonable members of the public object to seeing this material in this library?”

I think correctional librarianship illustrates one instance in our profession where the rights of the individual are subservient to the greater good of the larger society. As Librarians, we’re not really trained to handle situations like this. It smacks of pontification, or moralizing.

Perhaps that’s what it is. But if it is, it is for very sound, articulate reasons that are designed to serve both Keepers and the Kept.