Welcome to the Arctic: Drug Tests, Catalogs, & Winter Coats

Last week was exciting as I made two trips to a nearby prison in preparation to gain clearance to spend my practicum with the Education Justice Project.

The first of my two days was the formalities of being welcomed to a correctional facility, but I was able to see more of the facility than I had at the EJP’s open house. We saw the medical building, the outside the industry building, etc. We were shown around by the Chaplin, who I asked as many possible questions as we were being processed for finger prints & more to gain our final approval.

When asked what he liked about his job, he spoke about making a difference; when asked about the biggest challenge, he discussed not having enough time to accomplish all he wanted to. I was surprised to find out that his duties included collecting and maintaining numerous library collections: one of each major religion (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and I believe one more) as well as a collection for a bible school that began teaching classes.

The following day I was able to see most of his collection as well as be in my first general population prison library (unlike the EJP’s library which is only for their students). The general library was by chance open when we were there for law research. It was busy! Patrons were filling out forms, looking at law books, library workers were busy helping others and putting books away, and the counselor (who is the interim-librarian) was helping a handful of patrons with their questions. The interim-librarian showed us around briefly and as he had to assist patrons, a library worker showed us how to check out books, what patrons were currently working on, what his role is at the library, and… his homemade sign welcoming patrons to the arctic, for the heat was being replaced and almost everyone was in the gloves!

My primary reason for visiting was to spend time with the EJP’s library manager to discuss what I could potentially do to help out in their library with their library workers.

I was able to show her the catalog I began working on in Microsoft Access to help their collection be searchable on computers with the restriction of having no Internet access. Their current system is using Microsoft Excel and primarily printed out copies of the catalog sorted by title, author, and subject headings. Below are some screen shots of my work in progress (1st picture of searching page, 2nd of data entry):



While discussing the potential new catalog, I was shown the library workers’ list of their own subject headings they want to use that is more friendly to them than the Library of Congress’ subject headings. Sandy Bergman would be proud!

By the end of our visit, we decided that for my practicum I will assist in:

1.) Library instruction- will provided to each of the six classes within the spring semester for patrons to become familiar with resources & searching

2.) Create & maintain subject guides – create to support classes & popular topics

3.) Catalog support – help set realistic goal, assist in software research & recommendation (including making a catalog in Access); recommend how to catalog items that are not the traditional book

4.) Assist in making the space & collection more user friendly

5.) Documentation & training – documentation will be written for all essential library functions & library workers will assist in library instruction, subject guide creation, etc. for skill building

I’m very excited to continue working with the EJP, their library, and being able to work with their library workers… I can’t wait!

Law Library Requirements and Access for Isolated Patrons

As a non-law fluent person, this was the best resource to understand what the law says about legal libraries in prisons. If you are looking for the same information. This should be your first stop! Sources are so abundant that the notes on each page of this book are more than half of the page which includes further information such as cases and laws with quoted text.

I’m not really comfortable to talk about what the law is right now, but what I found interesting that could apply to non-legal libraries is the following quote:

Courts understand that a “cell delivery” or “paging” system, by itself, does not provide adequate court access because prisoners who cannot visit the library generally will not know what materials to ask for. If prison officials do permit segregation inmates to have physical access to the law library, that access must be adequate. (242)

This might make us rethink how delivery services to hospital and mental health (and other) locations in the prison system might be improved for better access. For example, bringing a cart full of books might be better suited in addition to books requested from patrons instead of just the requested reads.


Boston, John and Daniel Manville. Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

How to Handle Legal Questions in the Prison Library, Learn From Public and Law Libraries

I recently read Yvette Brown’s From the Reference Desk to the Jailhouse: Unauthorized Practice of Law and Librarians. It came to me while searching for prison librarianship articles due to jailhouse in the title.

Even though this article focuses on public librarians’ experiences with law at the reference and circulation desks. This article is helpful to learn where to ethically cross the line without obstructing a patron’s need for legal information and legal advise that may lead to violating ethical codes and / or the law due to performing unauthorized practice of law in the prison setting. We as librarian need to know the difference between legal information access and advise, but also make our patrons aware of our limitations.

Brown reminds us to remember the variety of people who are our patrons:

When patrons approach the desk seeking legal advice, they are approaching the desk from various standpoints, from being unable to afford or locate low cost or free legal services to plain curiosity about the law. In many cases, they view the person sitting behind the reference desk as the solver of their problems and not the guide lo the solution. (32)

Even in a law library setting, patrons blur the lines of attorneys and librarians. Here, Brown informs us on what a librarian CAN do and what attorney’s are for:

Law library patrons are unaware of some of the fundamental differences between the services of an attorney and the services of a librarian. First and foremost, an attorney’s job is to provide legal advice, counsel, and representation. In sharp contrast, when a library patron approaches the reference desk, the patron is entitled to legal reference, not legal research, or legal advice, or legal representation The librarian’s role is to disseminate legal information, not vindicate fundamental rights at the reference desk. The librarian may tell the patron where supreme court decisions are located; the librarian does not read, analyze, interpret or apply a decision to the patron’s personal situation.(32)

Brown also offers us some advise when in the reference interview on to distinguish legal information or advise and what the patron must do on their own:

“Err on the side of caution rather than recklessness” should be every librarian’s motto when providing legal reference.Librarians should apply a two prong test to each reference request. First, does the question require legal advice or legal information. Second, does the answer to the request go beyond mere guidance. The patron is entitled to be pointed in the right direction and instructed in the proper usage of legal materials. The patron must personally go to the index or digest, select the proper form, case, or statute, and apply it to his or her personal circumstances. The patron, not the librarian, interprets and drafts all legal documents. (33)

In the prison system, there are some differences in assisting patrons with legal needs:

The only library patrons who are entitled to assistance with preparing and filing legal documents as a matter of law are prison inmates. The United States Supreme Court held that prison authorities must assist inmates in filing and preparing legal documents with either adequate assistance from individuals educated in the law or they must provide the inmates with an adequate law library? In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist noted, however, that the majority opinion is based upon a fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts which can not be found in the literal text of the United States Constitution and that he “would not have the slightest reluctance to overrule Younger and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals in this case.” (33)

Ms. Brown suggests librarians do 10 things to make clear to patrons that librarians can offer legal information access and not advice beyond taking a conservative approach to legal questions:

  1. Post a sign at various desks patrons can approach distinguishing what legal services librarians can and cannot provide.
  2. Have handouts prepared to give patrons with legal hotlines and low income legal services in the community.
  3. Sign up for mailing lists of legal hotlines and low income services to be aware of any legal workshops that might be available to the public. Make these date available for patrons and put on a community calender.
  4. Libraries may want to partner with low income legal services by putting legal packets they distribute on reference or placed where the public can pick up when needed.
  5. Libraries should provide professional training for their staff about unauthorized law practice. Asking a local law firm to participate in the education of librarians and staff might work out nicely.
  6. Collect self-help legal books and how to interpret the law books for patrons needing such help that staff cannot offer.
  7. Librarians might want to use examples of non-legal materials when explaining how to find materials in the library, therefor the patrons knows how to find anything and then can find legal information on their own.
  8. Prepare a line or two that staff and librarians are comfortable saying when patrons insist on legal help to help them understand that they need to contact an attorney.
  9. Prepare a guide to law information at the library for patrons to get familiar with legal information access they have available to them at the library.
    • This handout should have a disclaimer similar to what Brown offers: “This handout is only for informational purposes regarding the library’s holding and anyone with a legal problem or question is strongly advised and encouraged to consult an attorney” (42).
  10. Try to prevent a patron from telling them their predicament with why they are needing legal information. This will help stop the temptation of wanting to help the patron and giving advice. Complete your reference interview and rely on information that the library has available.

It seems like the best practice to serve patrons with legal needs and not violate ethics or laws is to be prepared for these patrons, especially with materials that can guide them through the materials at the library and partner with community legal organizations to provide further access for patrons.

Below in the resources are also links to codes of ethics for the ALA and the AALL (American Association of Law Libraries).


Brown, Yvette. From the Reference Desk to the Jailhouse: Unauthorized Practice of Law and Librarians. Legal References Quarterly. 13.4 (1994): 31-45.

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

Monaco, Ralph. Revision of the AALL Code of Ethics: Role of an Ethics Code. AALL Spectrum. (Nov 1997): 14-8.

Prisoners’ Rights to Legal Material

I was under the assumption that people behind bars did not necessarily have the right to a library, but did have rights to legal material to help represent themselves in their case.

A Library Science classmate of mine, who also  also has her law degree, enlightened me about some legal material after I told her about what I saw at the jail library I volunteer at. What I saw was the contents of the jail law library was 2 multi-volumed book sets that were HUGE; to use these books, you have to request to see them and they cannot be checked out. My classmate told me that 1. they are bad law books, just like regular books and 2. law books like these contain just the law, nothing else.

The organization that I volunteer with is not allowed to bring in legal material because of the collection that already exists. If these huge books are slightly bad or incomprehensible how is being able to be with these books true access if you cannot understand them? So, in this case there are no how-to-interpret-the-law books to aid prisoners.

So, what are prisoners rights to legal material?

Author of Prison Libraries in Wikipedia pulls the following information out of the 2011 Library Trends that focuses on Prison Librarianship and the Law Library Journal:

In addition, in 1977, Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), ruled that prisons were required to provide access to people trained in law or law library collections in order to meet the constitutional requirement of meaningful access to the courts. In 1996, Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 804 (1996), limited the requirement placed on correctional facilities. Following Lewis many libraries reduced their collections.[2]

Lewis v. Casey ruled that prisoners do not have an absolute right to a law library. Rather an inmate must show that he was unable to pursue a legal claim because of the inadequacy of the law library.[6] In other words, lack of an adequate law library caused the inmate actual injury. The ruling in Lewis makes it much more difficult to seek improvement to a prison’s law library. As one court pointed out, the ability to litigate a claim of denial of access demonstrates that the inmate has no denial of access.[7] However, some believe that Lewis is not as devastating as it appears to be and Bounds v. Smith still remains good law.

Even if a person behind bars is allowed access to legal material, who decides how much time is adequate and how long a wait should be for trial when a prisoner is providing their own defense?

In a recent article, Suspect in 2010 Branford murder claims limited access to prison library not enough to prepare his own legal defensehow much time Dr. Lishan Wang is allowed to use legal material to defend himself (with LaPierre as a standby defender) is the issue:

“I didn’t know until today that it was just one hour,” LaPierre said. “It’s not enough time to prepare for his defense. I will pursue that issue (with Murphy). He should have enough access giving him sufficient time to prepare his case.”

“On that schedule,” LaPierre said of the current access, “it would take a long time for him to prepare.”

Trying to understand legal material and prisoner’s rights to the material is too much for me to comprehend in just one blog post! I am frankly glad that someone well versed shared their knowledge in Wikipedia. This is a subject that needs more time to explore and understand.


AALL – – American Association of Law Libraries – Search for “prisons” to see some of their content on prison law librarianship and issues similar to Out of Bounds.

Prison Libraries Wikipedia Page

Suspect in 2010 Branford murder claims limited access to prison library not enough to prepare his own legal defense.

This is part of a series on exploring some prisoners’ rights that affect prisoners as patrons. Other blog posts include: