Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Prisoners' Right to Read: An Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights"

From: Martin Garnar, chair, ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee
Subject: A New Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights

I am happy to announce that the eighth edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual is well on its way to publication and will be released during the 2010 Annual Conference in DC. Although the eighth edition is now available for pre-order through the ALA Store online, the Intellectual Freedom Committee has already begun work on the ninth edition, starting with a new Interpretation: "Prisoners' Right to Read."

During its Spring Meeting, the Intellectual Freedom Committee adopted "Prisoners' Right to Read: An Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights" (see below). We plan to present this Interpretation for adoption when I give the Report to Council at Council Session III during the 2010 Annual Conference in DC. The committee would therefore appreciate receiving any comments you may have prior to conference, no later than Friday, June 11, 2010.

Please send comments on this Interpretation prior to conference to Barbara Jones,ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (e-mail:, and please carbon copy Nanette Perez (e-mail: This Interpretation is also available on ALA Connect for comment at

Thank you for your time and assistance. The committee looks forward to hearing your comments on the new Interpretation.
Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights
The American Library Association asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in Procunier v Martinez [416 US 428 (1974)]:
When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

Participation in a democratic society requires unfettered access to current social, political, economic, cultural, scientific, and religious information. Information and ideas available outside the prison are essential to prisoners for a successful transition to freedom. Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society. Even those individuals that a lawful society chooses to imprison permanently deserve access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world.

Correctional facility libraries may be required by federal, state, or local laws; administrative rules of parent agencies; or court decisions to prohibit material that instructs, incites, or advocates criminal action or bodily harm or is a violation of the law. Although these limits can restrict the range of material available, the extent of limitation should be minimized by adherence to the Library Bill of Rights and its Interpretations. Library policy should be based on legal principles specifying that such exclusion must be reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives [Turner v Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) and Thornburgh v Abbott, 490 U.S.401 (1989)].

Prohibiting material for any other reason constitutes unwarranted censorship.
Censorship is an exclusive process by which authority rejects specific points of view. That material contains unpopular views or even repugnant content does not provide justification for censorship. Altering a publication is a form of censorship and should be employed only when a minimal amount of material is expurgated for legitimate penological interests and will ultimately allow the prisoner access to a document that would otherwise be excluded in whole. Unlike censorship, selection is an inclusive process that involves the search for materials, regardless of format, that represent diversity and a broad spectrum of ideas. Accepting that fiscal reality places limits on collection development, the correctional library collection should reflect the needs of its community.

These principles should guide all libraries serving prisoners:
· Collection management should be governed by written policy, mutually agreed upon by librarians and correctional agency administrators, in accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, its Interpretations, and other ALA intellectual freedom documents.
· Correctional libraries should have written procedures for addressing challenges to library materials in accordance with “Challenged Materials” and other relevant intellectual freedom documents.
· Correctional librarians should select materials that reflect the demographic composition, information needs, interests, and diverse cultural values of the confined communities they serve. As stated in “Free Access to Libraries for Minors,” age is not a reason for censorship. Incarcerated children and youth should have access to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction.
· Correctional librarians should be allowed to purchase materials that meet written selection criteria without prior correctional agency review. They should be allowed to acquire materials from a wide range of sources in order to ensure a broad and diverse collection.
· Correctional libraries should not be limited to purchasing from a list of approved materials. A library’s function is to provide for the multi-faceted needs of its population, rather than collect only materials that support the values and mission of the agency or its management.

· The correctional library should make all reasonable efforts to provide sufficient materials to meet the information and recreational needs of prisoners who speak languages other than English.
· Equitable access to information should be provided for persons with disabilities as outlined in “Services to People with Disabilities.”
· If a correctional agency prohibits items, it should describe disqualifying physical features or provide a list that:
1) includes bibliographic citations to the exact edition, volume, or
issue censored,
2) references specific passages of text, and
3) cites the rule that the passage or feature violates.
· Media or materials with non-traditional bindings should not be prohibited unless they present legitimate security concerns for the correctional facility.
· Material with sexual content should not be banned unless it violates state and federal law.
· In correctional facilities that do not permit prisoners to use the Internet, the correctional library should provide alternate access to information available only online.

When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights. Among these is the right to read. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of the right to read, to write, and to think—to intellectual freedom—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights should work to guarantee that the right to intellectual freedom is extended to all incarcerated individuals.

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