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Prison Libraries: Past & Present

It’s National Library Week! Every April since 1958, the American Library Association has encouraged people across the country to celebrate our nation’s libraries and the contributions of library workers. They’re important resources for communities, and libraries behind prison walls are no exception. As we take a look at the history of libraries at Eastern State Penitentiary, consider the role that libraries can play during someone’s incarceration. What should libraries in prisons look like and what purpose should they serve?

In 1844, fifteen years after it opened, Eastern State Penitentiary created a library system for both incarcerated people and prison workers. The library was founded and financed by Eastern State inspector John Bacon, Esq. who also procured some of the library’s earliest books. Bacon created a set of policies governing the distribution and care of books inside the penitentiary.

A printed catalog of available titles was issued to everyone in the prison, and each book had a corresponding number, not unlike a call number in today’s library system. Any incarcerated person in good standing who wished to check out a book could fill out a form with their prisoner number and the corresponding numbers of up to eight books they wished to read. Prison workers could check out books from the library using the same system. Books were delivered to people in their cells on Saturdays and returned to the library on Wednesdays. Anyone who checked out a book had two weeks to read and return it.

Cover of blue book reading "Catalogue of the Library of the Eastern State Penitentiary" dated 1912

While the location of the library at Eastern State changed over time, by the beginning of the Civil War, it occupied a unique space -- the octagonal room directly above the penitentiary’s central surveillance hub. It held over 10,000 books covering a range of topics, including hundreds of books in languages other than English like German, French, Spanish and Latin. In 1913, Warden Robert McKenty even partnered with the YMCA to offer incarcerated people instructional books that taught foreign languages.

Although Eastern State hired an outside librarian to oversee the management of the library, incarcerated people were also employed doing library work such as distributing and collecting books, printing various materials like sheet music and Christmas Carols, and even book binding.

In some rare cases, people working in the library used their positions to pass information throughout the prison, sometimes clandestinely. In March 1904 Warden Joseph Byers reported that the prison librarian intercepted a note written by Daniel Coleman (B-2209) to his brother Francis Coleman (B-2210). Byers documented the event in his journal saying, “Seems to be a regular correspondence being carried on by runners (couriers and messengers) of the library.”

Black and white photo of man sitting at a large desk in a library, the room is shaped like an octagon and paneled in dark wood, books line the walls

By the mid 20th century, there were multiple libraries inside Eastern State. Writing in 1957, Captain Joseph Roach recorded a new library in Cellblock 14. According to Roach, the library was tucked inside a cell and contained 1,200 books shelved around all the walls. We also know there was a library attached to Cellblock 1 during that same period with classrooms above.

Today, programs like the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Prison and Re-Entry Services are dedicated to offering high quality programs to incarcerated people, their children and their families through literacy support, cultural and literary offerings and re-entry resources. Programs like “Stories Alive” allow incarcerated parents to read books with their children using live video conferencing, creating quality time for families. And throughout the United States, dozens of organizations facilitate book donations to incarcerated people. In Pennsylvania, Books Through Bars and Book 'Em lead the way in providing free access to books and other educational materials to people in prison.

While prison libraries still exist, increasingly, tablets are replacing print books inside prisons. While corporations that sell these tablets claim their products deliver streamlined education tools to incarcerated learners, others caution that the introduction of tablets may be more about profit than education. In Pennsylvania, incarcerated people can now purchase tablets at commissary. The tablets are sold through Global Tel Link, a prison telecommunications provider, and cost $147 plus tax. Ebooks are available on these tablets and cost between $2.99 and $24.99.

Physical books often face additional scrutiny inside prisons, with some administrators alleging they pose potential safety risks. In 2018, the Pennsylvania DOC banned book donations to incarcerated people, citing concerns of possible drug smuggling via paper soaked in synthetic cannabinoids; however, the state has since revised that policy amid public disapproval.

While the topic can certainly provoke complex discussions, there’s no doubt that books and libraries have an important place in prisons and jails and often serve as a lifeline to the community outside. They provide opportunities for learning and growth. They help families connect, now even across prison walls. And they offer countless resources to their communities that extend far beyond a wide array of reading materials. This week, and always, we celebrate library workers everywhere and their contribution to communities inside and outside of prison.

Damon McCool
Public Programming Specialist

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner