Prison Libraries
“Books Open Up Worlds”

Library of the JVA Münster
Library of the JVA Münster | Photo (detail): © JVA Münster

An international symposium behind bars: in March 2013, librarians from six countries came to Münster prison to discuss the limitations and future prospects of prison library work.

Libraries regard themselves as the guarantors of free access to information – for all people in all situations. Nonetheless, those wishing to offer or improve library services for prisoners face considerable resistance all over the world.

A professionally-run library with expert staff and a collection that is up-to-date and reflects the needs of its users cannot be taken for granted in prison. Only a few countries meet the guidelines for library services to prisoners issued by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Germany also falls short of this yardstick, boasting only four professional librarians in a system comprising some 200 prisons.

An award with impact

From 18 to 20 March 2013, librarians from Argentina, Peru, the USA, Germany, Russia and the Palestinian territories came to Münster prison to discuss the situation of prison libraries. The first of its kind, this international symposium was initiated by the library at Münster prison, which was named Germany’s “Library of the Year” in 2007. This award had a considerable ripple effect. The library’s director, Gerhard Peschers, was invited to give talks and visit prisons in a number of countries. Inspired by these lecture tours, several local Goethe-Institut branch offices launched library project initiatives within the prison system. This was the subject of the symposium held recently in Münster.

Librarian training for prison teachers

Lara Crespo, who runs the library at the Goethe-Institut in the Argentinian province of Córdoba, reported on initiatives that are currently underway in the region. She launched a “Prison Library Network”, bringing representatives of the education ministry, the librarian training school and the prison service together for regular meetings for the first time. This collaboration gave rise to a programme aimed at promoting reading among prisoners; 17 teachers who work in the province’s prisons spent two years being trained as assistant librarians at the institute in Córdoba itself.

An initiative group to improve prison libraries in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut was also set up in the Brazilian province of Rio de Janeiro. That said, new initiatives are not always embraced by the competent ministries in all countries. In Russia, for instance, there is a need to draw at least some attention to the issue in the first place. To this end, Markus Kedziora, who is responsible for information and library services at the Goethe-Institut in Moscow, and Ivan Uspenski, the director of the library there, are planning an exhibition entitled Libertree – Book Trees Bridge Walls.

Encouraging reading among women in prison

Iliana Revoredo, the director of the Goethe-Institut’s library in Lima, presented a project that aims to encourage reading in the women’s prison in Chorrillos. Partnering the project are the prison’s study centre and the Peruvian National Library. From July 2013, the library is to be renovated and equipped with new furniture.

There are plans to update and expand the library’s collection in 2014 so that the library can make a better contribution to the social rehabilitation of the inmates. Another key task is to find trustworthy partners capable of continuing the project once it comes to an end.

Crates of books for Palestinian Territories

Samira Safadi, the director of information and library services at the Goethe-Institut in Ramallah, described in particular the limitations to her work for prisoners. She was accompanied by Mahmoud Safadi, who spent 18 years as an inmate in Israeli prisons and 14 years running prison libraries. He gave a very moving account of the enormous importance that books have for inmates.

In recent years, 150 media have been sent from the Goethe-Institut to a Palestinian-run women’s prison via a project with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. 450 media were supplied to the Palestinian Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, which was supposed to arrange the transfer of the books, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, to Palestinian prisoners in Israel. However, organizations such as Addameer, and indeed other human rights organizations, repeatedly encountered considerable difficulties when they tried to deliver the books to the prisons. Samira Safadi is now on a mission to find new partners.

This would appear to be the key to lasting success. This, at least, is what Vibeke Lehmann believes. As their co-author, she presented the IFLA’s guidelines for library services to prisoners at the symposium in Münster, as well as reporting on her practical experiences in the USA – including for example the introduction of an intranet for prisoners, and the parent-child project Breaking barriers with books. In most countries, however, positive developments in prison libraries depend entirely on the commitment of individuals; there is a lack of hard and fast support from the responsible authorities.