Prison libraries – a contribution to punishment that works?

A prison library is often referred to as a ‘normal zone’ for the inmates and the services offered are important for rehabilitation, education and socialisation. For many the library can function as a window to the outside world in an otherwise monotonous existence behind prison walls. The library and its staff convey impulses in the form of literature, culture, experiences and knowledge, thus opening the door to new possibilities and a richer life. As of 2009 the Norwegian government promises books to all those in prison. In other words, all inmates who are unable to use ordinary public libraries shall have access to a prison library or some satisfactory alternative.


The responsibility for prison library services has rested with the government since 1979 and is shared between the Ministry of Justice, represented within each prison, and the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs, through the offices of the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority. The prison is responsible for providing suitable premises and furnishings, while the Authority covers expenses towards salaries and media material. Activity is regulated by the individual municipality in cooperation with the Authority and also by agreements between each prison and the relevant public library. In 2005 the economic situation for prison libraries had reached a critical point. Overall mana- gement and the establishment of new prison libraries had stagnated over the years as a result of state subsidies failing to keep pace with rising salaries and increases in book prices. Since then there has been a ‘new dawn’ with regard to government support for prison libraries.


Prison libraries are part of the national library network. They belong to the public library sector, are subject to the Library Act and are meant to give the same services to their users as all public libraries. The significance of prison libraries is also underlined in international conventions and agreements which Norway has ratified, in particular the following:

Article 40 of the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states “Every institution shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and the prisoners shall be encouraged to make use of it.”

The Council of Europe’s recommendation No. R (87) 3 The European Prison Regulations is based on the United Nations’ standard rules for the treatment of prisoners: “Each penal institution shall have a library which can be used by all categories of prisoner. The library shall contain a wide choice of books offering both entertainment and education. Prisoners shall be encouraged to make use of the library. As far as is possible the prison library shall be organised in cooperation with the library activities of the community.”

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has issued its Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners. IFLA emphasises the importance of creating good library services in prisons and asserts that libraries can contribute to limiting recidivism among inmates, so that what initially may be seen as an expense can in fact contribute to a reduction in the overall costs to society.

Plan for prison library services

In 2007 the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority produced Library services in prisons – a plan for 2007- 2009 aimed at ensuring that the inmates of all prisons in Norway should have access to a library. The plan reviews the need for library services and what it would cost to offer these services to all prison inmates. The Authority and the Norwegian Correctional Services cooperate in evaluating on the basis of specific criteria which prisons should receive priority in the process of establishing new prison libraries.

A ‘new dawn’

In 2008 an increase in funding of NOK 4.000.000,- led to a welcome surge in activity. A further eight public libraries have entered into agreements to provide library services to prisons within their own municipality. A trial project dealing with alternative library services was able to continue its work on a more permanent basis. 85% of the penal institutions in need of a library service now cooperate with the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority. Plans for 2009 include the establishment of library services at a further 14 prisons, which will mean full coverage. Library statistics for 2007 revealed that prison inmates borrow 18 times as much as the average public library user.


The problems and requirements of a prison library are no different from those of a public library. They include presentation, access to new media and the use of technology. In addition to normal public library services, prison inmates following a course of study or training also have a legal right to library services. The challenge here is to establish good cooperation in the prisons between the educational authorities and the public library sector in order to offer the inmates comprehensive services. Prison library users are mainly men, and in addition the percentage of those speaking a minority language is relatively high and increasing. Many prison inmates read a lot and are very demanding with regard to the type of literature they prefer, while others are poor readers, lack education, are dyslectic or ignorant of books and reading.Many need easy-to-read books and constant assistance.Minoritylanguage speakers often require books in their own language, which may present the librarian with a problem. Even with the considerable increases of recent years in the national budget, there is still a need to strengthen some of the existing services. The high rate of establishing new prison libraries over a short period of time also accentuates the problem of locating suitable premises. The question of security can also present a challenge with regard to carrying out library visits and providing access to the Internet. Prison librarians accomplish a great deal, while working within a restrictive environment.

Punishment that works

The Government Report No. 37 (2007- 2008) Punishment that works – less crime and a safer society recognises the important contribution cultural activities can make in creating a meaningful existence for those serving a prison sentence. Reading, for example, can lead to greater self-understanding and a better hold on life. Surveys show that library services enrich and normalise prison existence. The library does more than simply lend out books. Authors’ evenings and similar arrangements are an important part of library services. The organisation ‘Reader in search of a book’ has received support from the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority in its efforts to implement the project ‘Books for everyone’ in prison libraries. Inmates are offered books which are easy to read and also given assistance in reading them. The aim is to ensure that prisoners when released have better reading skills than when they entered prison. The library is often referred to by the inmates, the librarians and the prison staff as a welcome refuge, a meeting place where prisoners can come voluntarily to talk, play games or read the newspapers. All this creates a social network and constitutes a positive initiative on the way to release and a better life outside prison walls.

The promise to make books available to all prison inmates will hopefully contribute to a punishment that works. It is a wise initiative because information and knowledge must be acknowledged as a natural, democratic right – also for all those in prison.


Today is warmer
than a few days ago.
It stays light longer,
The same as outside!
I have a view over the wall.
Not much to see,
but I can catch a glimpse of spring.

Adam M.Sivle

Hilde Kristin Ljødal
Senior adviser,
Norwegian Archive Library and Museum Authority

hkl AT

Translated by Eric Deverill

Senior adviser, Norwegian Archive Library and Museum Authority