Dear Librarian: Filling the Information Gap for Prisoners with No Internet Access

Dear Librarian: Filling the Information Gap for Prisoners with No Internet Access

By Christopher Zoukis

For most Americans, life without Google or Wikipedia would be quite different, and living without Internet access is probably unimaginable. One might ask, “How would I obtain the information I need to live my life?” Yet for most of America’s 2.3 million prisoners, there is no Google, no Facebook, no Internet at all.

While a growing number of states and the federal Bureau of Prisons allow prisoners access to limited and monitored email – usually for a fee – that does not include the ability to peruse the Internet. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.35; Dec. 2009, p.24].

As such, most prisoners have to obtain information the old-fashioned way: relying on family and friends on the outside as well as (usually outdated) encyclopedias and almanacs in prison libraries. But a program offered by the New York Public Library, helps shine a light for some prisoners. Through NYPL’s Correctional Services Program, a team of librarians and researchers receive about 60 letters a month from prisoners seeking information of some kind.

From queries about post-release opportunities to pleas for baseball statistics, the team does its best to provide answers. The Correctional Services Program, which runs lending libraries in New York state prisons, doesn’t provide the service as an official program but does so in the spirit of decades of service to the community, harkening back to the pre-Internet days when libraries were a primary source of information for members of the public.

Librarian Sarah Ball, who supervises the program, has enlisted the aid of students from the Pratt Institute School of Information to answer prisoners’ questions. The only questions they won’t answer are those seeking personal information or legal advice.

Aside from book lending and informational services, the NYPL Correctional Services Program also offers other resources for prisoners. Those resources include the “Daddy and Me” program, in which incarcerated parents can audio record themselves reading a book for their child; weekly book discussion groups; and orientations regarding neighborhood libraries, such as library card registration, for prisoners nearing release.

While there appears to be no other public library system that provides such a volume of interaction with prisoners, a fledgling industry of private companies has developed to offer paid informational services to America’s incarcerated.

A perusal of any issue of Prison Legal News reveals numerous advertisers offering Internet research services; these companies help fill the void for prisoners seeking knowledge that typically requires online access. However, those who have participated in the NYPL program see beyond the mere utility of providing information.

Nicholas Higgins, director of outreach services at the Brooklyn Public Library, said answering prisoners’ letters also provides a “human connection” between the prisoners and those willing to listen and respond. Our criminal justice system is one “that resists that sort of access to information,” he added. Pratt Institute associate professor Deborah Rabina agreed, stating, “If you want people to successfully reintegrate into society upon their release, being able to have access to [the Internet] is essential.”

On July 26, 2016, the New York Public Library opened its first permanent branch at the Rikers Island jail complex, housed in the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), which holds female prisoners. The RMSC library opened its doors with more than 1,200 books and actively encourages further donations from the public.

“Everyone is always welcome at the library. Free books, free use of computers, educational programs,” said NYPL president Tony Marx at the opening ceremony of the Rikers Island branch. “We do not want people locked up. We want everyone – everyone – to have the opportunity to read, to learn, to create, to gain skills, and contribute.”

Sources: Newsweek,,,

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on January 10, 2017.