The United States has been the so-called free world’s leader in many respects, but it has also maintained its position as leader of the incarcerated world. As of 2014, the U.S. prison population consists of 2.4 million people. This is no accident or chance, but rather a deliberate policy outcome of the War on Drugs. Yet this outcome fails to account for the very real experience of being incarcerated: the long-term isolation from the free world and its debilitating consequences on a prisoner’s opportunities to come back as a presumably reformed citizen. This extreme isolation as punishment raises the question of how exactly we (and our policymakers) really expect prisoners to return to society after being locked away from their families and communities for months and years at a time.
Education has been one answer posed and implemented to address the issue of prisoner rehabilitation, yet how is this education put into practice? When we think of prison education, many of us will imagine that of a prison library. Not much of a surprise since most U.S. prisons provide a library to inmates, although the availability of services and resources offered vary unequally from state to state, region to region. As a result, prison libraries have become the center of correctional education, an opportunity for prisoners to pursue an education.
Prison libraries under the strict supervision and control of the prisons themselves are used to “transform” inmates into productive citizens, to rehabilitate them. Yet they are supposed to be productive in the sense that they do not challenge the status quo, and particularly the violence being exercised on them. Sadly, what this means is that prison libraries have been appropriated as sites of violence for the state. Rather than serve the ideal of rehabilitation, prison libraries are used to cover for the fatal flaws within the system. By providing prison libraries and correctional education to inmates, the state can keep the discourse focused on transforming the individual prisoner rather than the criminal justice system itself.
It is not so much a failure of prison libraries, but instead a failure of the prison rehabilitation mission. Censorship of library materials remains prevalent within prisons in the name of public safety and protecting inmates from “relapsing” (i.e., recidivism).These censorship practices are not to protect inmates so much as they are to “self-discipline” their minds and their bodies to be docile, to be obedient. The lack of social wealth being directed to prison libraries also contributes to this problem of rehabilitation, as they are deprived of funding to provide meaningful rehabilitative programs and services.
Prison libraries face a double bind of sorts. On the one hand, they are being highly criticized for being inadequate institutions of rehabilitation, largely as a result of underfunding and conflicting interests with the prison system. Libraries are made out to be the ones at fault, which neglects to consider how the prison system itself perpetuates existing issues and inequities in current rehabilitative education efforts. On the other hand, their praise as tools for rehabilitative justice conceals the underlying themes of violence and control in the prison industrial complex. These are themes to which libraries have to remain complicit for the sake of their own survival as legitimate educational and public welfare institutions. In either case, inmates receive the losing end as larger structural issues remain invisible in the movement for individualized rehabilitation.