RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Reference Services for Incarcerated Populations - 06/08/2022
Periodically, our library receives handwritten requests for information from individuals who are i...
Posted: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 Permalink


Periodically, our library receives handwritten requests for information from individuals who are incarcerated at prisons and correctional facilities around the country.

We are an academic library at a private institution and our campus does not currently have a prison outreach program. As part of our ongoing social justice efforts within the library, we would like to be more purposeful about the way we handle these reference questions.

What are legal considerations we should keep in mind when providing reference services to incarcerated individuals? Ideally, we would want to treat these questions the same way we would questions from members of the general public. However, our team wants to be sure we understand whether there are ways we could unintentionally put ourselves or our institution at legal risk if we provide information that is somehow deemed problematic.

(Note: We are aware of the Prison Library Support Network and plan to participate in trainings they may offer.)



As I have written before, a big rule for the "Ask the Lawyer" service is "don't reinvent the wheel!"

So before I answer this, I will reiterate the member's mention of the "Prison Library Support Network", and refer readers to their excellent guide "Reference Letter Writing: A Volunteer Handbook."

The "Volunteer Handbook" reviews a lot of what I would otherwise supply: how to be respectful of an incarcerated person’s needs and personal considerations when responding to a reference request, how to be aware of and work within the larger social dynamics at play, and--critically--the practical considerations of sending mail to incarcerated people (it's also well-written, which is always a plus).

To the "Volunteer Handbook" I would add just a few considerations for a library at a private higher education institution:

First, it is important to recognize that while library services provided in the state of New York by both public libraries and academic libraries are confidential, incarcerated individuals do not have privacy with respect to information they receive via the mail.  Therefore, the normal librarian/library user dynamic is "off."

Here is a sample of the scrutiny mail to a person living in jail or prison will be subject to:

(c) Printed or photocopied materials.

(1) When, in the course of inspection, printed or photocopied materials are found, the entire contents of such correspondence may be delayed through the correspondence unit for up to six days while the materials are subject to media review guidelines (see Part 712 of this Title).

(2) A limit of five pages of printed or photocopied materials (an individual newspaper clipping will be considered one page) may be received within a piece of regular correspondence (except as provided in paragraphs [3] and [4] of this subdivision). In order to facilitate media review, pages or clippings must not be taped, glued, or pasted together or to other papers.

(3) Not to exceed once every four months, an inmate may make a written request to the superintendent to receive in excess of five pages of printed or photocopied legal papers specifically related to the inmate's current legal matter (e.g., legal brief or trial transcript relating to the inmate's active case) within a piece of regular correspondence. The inmate shall make the request in advance...[etc.]

Ugh.  That's a lot of compromised privacy.[1]  So, from the outset, just keep in mind that per 7 CRR-NY 720.4, as well as a facility's customized policies and procedures, the usual rule of confidentiality will not apply.

Aside from that, I add three things:

1.  An academic library should specify via written policy if it offers library privileges to community members within a defined geographic scope (not just students, alumni, and employees).

2.  An academic library should have a policy setting out its capacity and limits for providing hard copy/mailed responses to reference requests.

3.  If a library is going to provide services specifically to incarcerated persons living beyond the geographic scope allowed by their policies (as the member's question says, they get questions "from around the country"), a specific policy should be developed for providing that service, even if the institution doesn't have a fully-developed prison outreach program.

These three policies should be applied evenly, fairly, and with attention to budget and capacity. This means:

With respect to #1, if an academic institution allows residents within 100 miles to have library privileges, and there is a prison within that radius, a person who is incarcerated may have library privileges (although their ability to exercise them may be limited).

With respect to #2, if an academic library provides written, mailed responses to users, there should be time and resource limits on providing that service to users, and those limits should be uniformly applied with respect to both staff hours, and copying/mailing budget.

And with respect to #3, if a private academic institution wants to provide services to persons living in jail or prison beyond the scope of their usual services, but it not able to develop a full prison outreach program, such services should still be done per a specific policy.

Why a specific policy, if there isn't a fully developed outreach program?  A few reasons.  First, it will help set the boundaries for the service, based on the library's capacity.  By establishing those boundaries, the library/institution will be able to show that the resource is being allocated fairly.  And finally, it provides clarity on how such services are provided, who is responsible for providing them, and how much is allocated for the expense associated with them (useful information if your institution ever wants to expand the service through a grant).

Here is a sample policy:[2]

[ABC Library] Policy on Reference Services to Incarcerated Persons


As part of our mission, the [ABC College Library] provides up to [20 hours per month] of reference services to persons incarcerated anywhere within [the United States].


Upon receiving a reference request from a person who is incarcerated, the ABC Library assesses if the inquiry can be answered by the library within [one month (30 days)].[3]

If it can be answered, the question is placed in a queue to be answered in order of receipt, and an answer will be sent via the USPS within 30 days of receipt.

If it cannot be answered, either due to a large queue, or because it is not within the capability of the institution, a reply is sent stating "The ABC Library received your request for reference services, and regrets that answering your question is not within our capability at this time."

The position responsible for reviewing requests, and for assessing and effecting a timely response, is [INSERT]. This responsibility may be delegated, based on capacity.

OPTIONAL: To the greatest extent possible, persons within [NAME Correctional Facility], which is in the Library's area of service, are served per the library's policy on community members, and hours spent serving such users are not counted against the monthly amount allowed under this policy].

I appreciate that for many institutions of higher education, this question is deeply related to mission. Therefore, in adopting even the most informal policy, such as the one above, I also suggest considering a recital of how the work specifically plays into the mission of the institution.

Thank you for a thoughtful question.

[1] I get why, but as someone opposed to the carceral system in general (we can do better), this is just another reason to develop a better system.

[2] [Text in Brackets] in this sample policy indicates places where customization is most needed.

[3] An institution should research what time frame they feel is fair to offer; for some inquiries, sixty, or even ninety days may be reasonable.  This depends on the type of inquiries your institution is receiving...especially since this is a policy for a reactive service, rather than a deliberative outreach program.


Tags: Academic Libraries, Ethics, Policy, Templates, Reference

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