Can You Read In Prison?

Reading is a classic pastime; reading allows for someone to dive into another world, read up on current events, or explore a topic that interests them. Reading is widely credited with helping individuals reach their dreams and increase their knowledge; so, with that being said, is reading allowed in prison?

Prisons do more than allow reading, they encourage it.

In this article, we will cover the following topics:

  • Why do prisoners read in the first place?
  • How do inmates get the books they want?
  • Do convicts get to own books?
  • Are there restrictions for inmates when it comes to reading?
  • How do prison libraries work?

Why do Prisoners Read?

The reason a prisoner chooses to read varies person to person, but the general consensus by correctional facility officials is that prisoners read because it offers them an escape; reading offers prisoners a place to take their thoughts that are outside the institution. When an inmate has nothing to focus on, time moves very slowly. It can be a soul crushing experience to have nothing to look forward to. Reading fills the void of time for many prisoners, reading offers hope.

The hope that reading brings to prisoners isn’t just a feel-good story; there is real data to support the notion that reading while incarcerated can help an inmate excel once they are released.

The Reading Agency reported that nearly half (48%) of all prisoners are thought to have “low to poor reading skills”. By taking the time to read while in prison, inmates are able to strengthen their reading skills without any official instruction, just by picking up a book that interests them and starting to read it.

Many prisoners hold a determination to improve their life when they are done serving their sentence, and in order to achieve this goal, they read. They read about prospective professions they may undertake once they are released, they read up on a variety of skills that will be useful to have in the world, and they read inspirational stories of people that have turned their lives around once released. Reading offers inmates the knowledge they will need to move into the world with confidence.

It is not always about the future, however; many inmates choose to read stories that interest them as a way to pass the time, with no regard to the future. We briefly touched on how reading makes time go by faster, but inmates that read for pleasure are doing more than just killing time, whether they realize it or not, they too are preparing themselves for when the re-enter the world.

Reading in prison is beneficial to everyone who partakes in the activity. Reading strengthens one’s vocabulary, writing skills, reading skills, and knowledge of the world.

How do Inmates Get the Books They Want?

The process of getting a book to read for an inmate is relativity simple – they just go to the library.

Every major prison in the United States has a library, a library where prisoners can get books to read that interest them, free of charge. If an inmate wants to read a highly specific book that is not found in the prison’s library, they will have to either order it, or ask a family member to get them the book.

For the most part, inmates have little trouble finding something to read – the average prison library contains 15 books per inmate, plenty of books for an inmate to choose from.

Books can be traded and bartered as well. Some books that inmates own hold incredible value, especially if it is part of a series or a new release. Books that of high demand are treated with the upmost care, mostly because other inmates will be angry if someone ruins the book, but partially because the mutual care for books is already known, hence why libraries in prison are able to exist.

Books are respected within prison, inmates understand the benefit that reading has on people, and they acknowledge that many prisoners like to read.

Prisoners can order books from catalogs as well; Barnes and Noble has a subsection on their main website for “Placing Orders to Correctional Facilities or Prisons”. Reading is big business in prisons across America, as it one of the few things to do while locked up.

Do Convicts Get to Own Books?

Yes, convicts can own books while in prison. There are however restrictions on what books an inmate can own or read. The strict guidelines some institutions have that restrict specific reading material has caused quite the conservatory in the eyes of law scholars and judges.

There have been many lawsuits in years past declaring that prisoners are having their First Amendment suppressed due to the censorship restrictions imposed by the correctional facilities across the country. This subject is still under debate today, but it helps to clarify if prisoners are allowed to own books, and the answer is yes.

Inmates that own books usually receive the books from family and friends, either by asking them to order it for them, or asking them for funds to be put into their commissary account, so they can go and order the book(s) themselves.

Are There Restrictions on Inmates When it Comes to Reading?

This was briefly touched on in the discussion above, but for more clarification, as well as additional information, it is important that we answer this in a more direct format.

Yes. There are restrictions. The restrictions vary in their harshness, some institutions prohibit books that contain any violent/sexual nature, while other prisons only prohibit a select, prewritten list of books.

The restrictions placed on reading material typically correlate with the type of facility, the security level of the facility, and in some cases, the risk level of the inmate.

Even though each correctional facility has its own policies and restrictions, it is against the law to not allow an inmate to read. The first amendment is automatically violated when any rule prohibits or restricts an inmate from reading. It starts to become legal nightmare when the conversation of censorship is discussed, hence why it is still be fought about in court, but the main point is that prisons can restrict what an inmate reads, they cannot however, restrict the right to read from the inmate.

How do Prison Libraries Work?

The library in prison functions the same way every other library works, the only difference is that the inmate can’t leave the facility with the book. Prison libraries have all of the same keystone library characteristics: the book drop box, the chairs to read in, the books to choose from, all of the regular things someone would expect in a library exist.

A library in prison is more than just a place to read, however. Libraries in prison often contain community service projects, writing and reading workshops, book clubs, and more exciting activities for prisoners to partake in. The prison library is a great place for an inmate to better him/herself.

It is healthy for inmates to visit the library, not only does it offer a change in scenery, but they are able to engage with people in a meaningful way. This is important for two reasons: first, humans are social creatures, humans thrive on human interaction, and the ability to talk to a group of people about your favorite book is very healthy.

Secondly, it helps instill bonds, it helps inmates that struggle with social interaction and conversation overcome their difficulties either by joining a club or simply talking to the librarian, it is all constructive.

Prison is a place full of both isolation and community, inmates find themselves so isolated from the people around them, while at the same time so close with them that it is very difficult for prisoners to find a medium to connect on (besides just being in prison together). The library helps foster that medium through finding collective interests among prisoners and giving them a space to talk about those interests.


How do Prisons get the books?

Prison libraries acquire their books either through general auctions or from donors. It is very common to have worn books be donated to prisons, or in some cases, have new books gifted to prisons.

Do prisoners get to read the newspaper?

Sometimes. This answer is subject to the inmate’s security level. If the inmate is in a maximum-security prison, the answer is no. If the inmate is of low risk standing in a minimum-security prison, then reading the newspaper becomes an institution by institution decision.

Can prisoners vote?

Short answer: Yes.

Prisoners are allowed to vote in select states, some states allow prisoners to vote via ballots provided by the prisons (they do not leave the facility). Some states do not allow prisoners to vote under the guise that they are not contributing members of society.

Can Ex-Felons vote?

Short answer: Yes

Yes, Ex-Felons who have served their allotted time and are now free are allowed to vote in all 50 state in the United States.

Thank You for reading. Do you think reading is important? Comment your favorite book suggestions below!


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