This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July/August 2023

Books behind bars

Incarcerated people in Canada are often without access to information. Prison librarians are working to change that

Leslie Sinclair

Illustration by Jarred Briggs


“I still remember everything about it,” Zakaria Amara says, sketching the library inside Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security prison located in Bath, Ontario. He maps the librarian’s glass office inside the door from a controlled-movement hallway. An inspirational sign about reading hangs on the wall (he can’t recall what it says exactly). Next, the law books. Behind that, a back wall offering fantasy novels. There’s a magazine section in one corner. And in the centre of it all, couches to rest and read on.

“Here was my favourite section for a very long time,” Amara taps the pen on a rectangle he’s drawn beside the law section. Self-help.

In the summer of 2006, a series of anti-terrorism raids shocked Toronto and the GTA. Police arrested 13 men and four minors, and took an eighteenth person into custody two months later. Together, the group became known as the Toronto 18, accused of planning a series of attacks including a plot to bomb the Toronto Stock Exchange, among other important buildings. Amara, detained at age 20 and considered one of the ringleaders, pled guilty at trial in 2009. He received a life sentence.

Last October, Amara was released on parole following two days of intense interrogation, a month or so apart, by RCMP national security investigators to assess whether he still posed a threat to society. Today, in a quiet corner of the Toronto Reference Library, Amara explains how library access was critical to his transformation and deradicalization in prison. He arrived at Millhaven in 2015, after five-and-a-half years in the special handling unit (SHU)—also known as supermax— at Ste-Anne-des-Plaines Institution in Quebec. Despite its reputation as one of Canada’s most violent prisons, Millhaven was “paradise” compared to the SHU.

“I must have read 100 self-help books,” he says. At the time, the genre was new to him and introduced him to concepts and ideas that he wasn’t aware of. “I had no access to emotions,” he explains, “so it opened up understanding emotions, self- esteem, self-worth, and how that tied back to why I became radicalized in the first place.”

Being incarcerated doesn’t—or shouldn’t—mean that you’ve given up your right to access information. In fact, as the Canadian Federation of Library Associations argues in its Right to Read position statement, “certain freedoms, such as those of conscience and religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression have a heightened importance behind bars.” Adopted in 2016, the statement joined a list of internationally endorsed foundational documents that support establishing and supporting library services to prisoners. These include the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules, which state that “Every institution shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.”

Despite the obvious benefits of access to information behind bars, that freedom is routinely limited or not extended to incarcerated people in Canada.

“Hey, librarian,” someone is yelling from the next cell over. The librarian, Michelle De Agostini, is taking her printed library catalogue door-to-door at the Edmonton Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in Alberta. “I want some James Patterson!”

Patterson, one of the world’s best-selling authors, is just as popular on the “inside” as he is to the masses. But genre fiction is far from the only material that’s important to incarcerated people. Folks inside prison have the same information needs as those of us on the outside: instruction on languages, cultural practices, entrepreneurship, mental health, self-help and the law.

Though many of the Edmonton Institution men show a desire to read, movement, association and privileges are highly restricted in maximum security. Browsing the stacks was out of the question. De Agostini tried to have the catalogue installed on standalone computers to make the check-out process easier for them, but upgrading the technology proved not to be a high priority for the IT staff. So instead, De Agostini printed the catalogue and took it cell-to-cell, conducting interviews along the way to determine what materials would interest people. The unwieldy paper version of an Excel spreadsheet she carried around was more than 300 pages long. “It was ridiculous. And it never printed in a way that was very readable. I thought, ‘How is anybody supposed to know how to find anything?’”

De Agostini never imagined that she was going to be a prison librarian. But after a talk from the Greater Edmonton Library Association’s (GELA) Prison Libraries Project during library school, she started volunteering with them in 2018 and eventually became treasurer. She began by helping lead creative writing workshops at the Edmonton Remand Centre. In 2019, while still going to the Edmonton Remand Centre monthly, De Agostini began working at the Edmonton Institution, where a new library was being created. She lucked into her full-time paid job there when a manager walked in while she was volunteering and said, “Hey, do you know anybody who wants a job?”

De Agostini, who left prison librarianship in 2021, has since worked as a branch manager at a rural public library in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and is now the Manager of Access Services at York University. “The library,” she wrote in a 2022 paper for Journal of Radical Librarianship, “is a minimum human rights requirement—literally the least prisons could be doing to protect the intellectual freedom of the people they house—and yet adequate library services are still not being provided in Canadian prisons.”

While federal prisons in Canada are legally required to have a library in their institutions, provincial legislation is patchy. Most provincial prisons don’t have their own library services, instead relying on volunteer librarians to bring in programming. This means there’s little continuity in what’s on offer, and, at the provincial level, little assurance that it will be anything at all. A “library” in a provincial prison might be a storage locker full of books that are packed up and exchanged every month or so. Or a volunteer group might be allowed to build a library space that they’ll maintain monthly.

This means that every day, thousands of incarcerated people could be denied their fundamental right to access to information and library services. The consequences range from lack of ability to escape through reading to increased isolation to difficulty working on their legal cases. Lack of access to books, in other words, can make a hopeless situation feel worse.

In Canada, there are two correctional systems. The federal system, governed by Correctional Service Canada (CSC), houses adults who have been sentenced to two or more years in institutions that use minimum, medium, maximum and special handling security classifications. Meanwhile, the provincial-territorial system, regulated by each province or territory’s relevant ministry or department, houses adults sentenced to less than two years and youth aged 12 to 17. The provincial-territorial system also houses people in remand, meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime and are waiting for trial. On an average day, according to Statistics Canada, there are about 12,395 adults in federal custody and 20,430 adults in provincial-territorial custody, with a staggering 71 percent of provincially incarcerated persons being held in remand.

It’s well known that Black and Indigenous people are chronically overrepresented within these populations. A 2016 investigation by Maclean’s magazine found that Canadian criminologists had quietly begun referring to prisons and jails as the “new residential schools.” According to the 2021-2022 “Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator,” Indigenous people comprise just five percent of Canada’s overall population, yet make up 32 percent of those held in federal institutions. Worse, Indigenous women represent 50 percent of all women in federal custody. Black people, who represent roughly 3.5 percent of the overall Canadian population, are similarly overrepresented in federal custody, comprising 9.2 percent of the total population. The majority of Black people incarcerated are young men between the ages of 18 to 30.

For prison librarians, that means working toward a collection that contains culturally relevant materials, says Kirsten Wurmann, chair and founding member of Manitoba Library Association’s Prison Libraries Committee. Of course, people can dictate their cultural needs for themselves, but sometimes new information is required, and that’s where librarians come in. “What we can do is say, ‘If you really want some picture books that are English and Cree, we can buy some of those.’” She remembers an older woman who’d come to the library looking for books about traditional Indigenous beading. The books inspired her to create her own patterns, which she’d share with other women.

These days, the Manitoba Library Association’s Prison Libraries Committee is often asked by provincial prisons to help with their libraries by bringing in books, or even setting up a new library because they’ve heard about their work with other institutions and there are no funds or provincial policies in place to do that work. “That feels frustrating to me because we’re a volunteer group and the need is there,” she says.

Lack of funding is one of the biggest challenges of doing this work, says Wurmann. The group receives $500 in funding annually from the Manitoba Library Association, and anything other than that depends on donations and fundraising.

On the other hand, there are advantages to being a small group with access to some money, explains Allison Sivak, who helped found the GELA’s Prison Libraries Project along with Wurmann and others back in 2007. “You can move really fast,” she says. Because it’s a small volunteer group that raises money through its own fundraising efforts, it means that they can avoid layers of red tape, getting materials into people’s hands more quickly.

Whether volunteer or paid, these librarians are passionate about their work inside prisons. But they cannot, by themselves, fill the gaps left by structural inefficiencies. It will take a concerted effort on behalf of each province to create legislation to ensure that each provincial institution has a library, bringing incarcerated people access to the information they deserve.

Opened in 1835, Kingston Penitentiary was Canada’s first large prison and housed its first recorded prison library. Early Canadian prison libraries, modelled on those in American prisons, were run by chaplains, held mainly religious texts in their collections and were, not surprisingly, framed as spaces of moral reform. In the late 1880s, the Penitentiary Acts and the Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Penitentiaries of Canada of 1888 stipulated that all federal prisons must have a library containing secular books alongside the religious ones. However, there wouldn’t be a standardized federal prison library policy until 2012’s National Guide for Institutional Libraries. The guide was strongly influenced by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ 2005 Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners which canvassed librarians in more than 25 countries regarding the status of prison libraries and related legislation in their homelands. Today, mirroring the outside to help inmates prepare for their release is considered a crucial purpose of prison libraries. To that end, Commissioner’s Directive 720, CSC’s policy instrument on educational programs and services for inmates, in effect as of May 2017, states that not only are prisons responsible for providing library services, but those services ought to be “similar to those offered in the community.” That’s important, Wurmann says, because incarcerated individuals came from our community, they remain part of it while they are inside, and eventually they return to our wider society.

Though CSC declined an interview, in an email Jordan Crosby, manager of issues management and media relations, stated that library services meant to address recreational, cultural, spiritual and educational reference needs are provided at all federal institutions. Those services may be provided by a dedicated librarian, another staff member or by contract. Some materials are prohibited: particularly anything alluding to weapons construction or sexually explicit works involving violence or children. But books can also be limited on an individual basis. For example, if it “contributes to an unhealthy living environment [or] presents a risk to the safety and security of the institution.” Another reason that materials might be individually limited is if they are inconsistent with an inmate’s correctional plan, a program tailored to each person based on an evaluation they receive when they arrive at an institution. The evaluation is meant to determine the underlying reasons that led to their sentence while the correctional plan, updated throughout the person’s sentence, is intended to prepare them to return to the community.

“Reading and access to educational resources is important and we make every effort to ensure access to inmates,” Crosby writes, noting that book carts, reading requests, access to legal materials and the Digital Reference Library—which is updated quarterly—are available to people. The Digital Reference Library is accessed through monitored and restricted computers which may be located on the unit but also in spots like the school and work program areas or the library. It is also available by CD-ROM, and where necessary, in paper form. However, De Agostini says, “whether or not people get access—reasonable access—to that library is debatable, but they’re legally required to have it.”

Defining what library services are or ought to be is contentious because every library worker and incarcerated person has a different idea of what’s needed. CSC’s own National Guide for Institutional Libraries says that library services should match the public library as best as they can. So for De Agostini, reasonable access means being able to enter the space, browse the stacks and other media, search a catalogue on library computers, be able to attend regular library programming, speak to a qualified library worker and have access to printing and web services, with no banning or censorship of library materials (within reason). She’d like to see maker spaces. Most importantly, perhaps, reasonable access means the library is robustly funded with well-developed collections that meet patrons’ needs and has established inter-library loan services to fill in the gaps.

For Amara, what constitutes reasonable access is much simpler. “Security always trumps everything in those places so that’s the card that’s played” when it comes to accessing the library, he says. At a minimum, he says, the library must be open five days per week when there are no security issues, ideally for both the morning and afternoon movement shifts. A lockdown period usually follows a security incident. It’s a time when all privileges are suspended, though inmates still receive their prescriptions. In the event of a lockdown, Amara thinks the book trolley should come out as soon as possible. In fact, he suggests, since prisoners can’t go to the library every day—at Millhaven, they must request a pass and are allowed to visit only once or twice per week—the trolley should go around daily. “Books are like medication,” he says, “and should be treated as such.”

On Wednesdays, the Kitchener Public Library bus rolls into Grand Valley Institution for Women loaded with books destined for the library in the main building. Inside their residential-style units, the women wait for inmate count to be finished, gearing up for a wild race to the library when they’re released.

“As soon as that bell went off after lunch, after the count was complete, people would just be running as fast as they could to the building to try to get as many books as they could,” says Emily O’Brien, who served 10 months out of a four-year sentence for drug smuggling in the federal multilevel security facility in Kitchener, Ontario. The library at Grand Valley was small, O’Brien explains, but its partnership with the Kitchener Public Library meant that people could request books that the prison library didn’t have.

“Reading [in prison] was never an escape for me. It was more like something that made me feel worthy,” O’Brien says. Not only did she devour 82 books during her time there, but she also started Comeback Snacks, a successful gourmet popcorn company that now employs other formerly incarcerated people—all without access to the internet. “Reading gave me hope because when you can educate yourself through books, that inspires you to build things,” she says.

With a limited library, and no internet, O’Brien had to get creative to expand her reading list. She mostly read nonfiction, so when she really liked a book, she’d check out the source list and place orders for the author’s source books. And sometimes, she says, “I would call my mom on the phone and get her to look up business books that were coming out.”

Books and relationships with prison librarians can also help incarcerated people to feel more like themselves in a situation where there aren’t many chances to show one’s individuality. Sivak recalls an incarcerated woman saying, “We’re treated as a population.” For prisoners, having normal interactions with people who treat them with respect or having packages addressed to them is really important because they are dehumanized on a daily basis.

“I often talk about giving a humanizing experience,” Wurmann says. “They’re not just inmates. They’re not just offenders. They are incarcerated, but it doesn’t mean that they’ve given up their rights.”

Sivak sees library services not just as a way to learn, but as a way to build connections between people. She notes the benefits of outsiders coming in to spend time, whether for a reading, writing or other creative program, as programming inside prison is often designed to change people. However, “in art making or writing, you see people’s strengths and the pride they have in the work they make, and that’s very cool,” she says.

“Volunteering in prison is not an easy process,” explains O’Brien, who participated in a monthly book club at Grand Valley facilitated by Book Clubs for Inmates, a charity that organizes volunteer-led book clubs in federal prisons across Canada. Volunteers have to go through many security clearances to be able to go inside. “For someone to really commit to doing that because they believe in second chances or because they believe in people even though they’ve done something wrong—it was another thing that provided help.” Not only did the book club inspire the women to form new friendships amongst themselves, O’Brien says, but it allowed them to meet people they could connect with after prison.

Volunteers have “the scent of freedom,” Amara says. In the SHU he wasn’t allowed access to volunteers, but at Millhaven, where there was a book club and a poetry club, being around free people gave him hope. “They’re not guards and they aren’t part of the system. You aren’t afraid of them. And they’re just there to help you.”

In her paper, De Agostini charges that “prison libraries have largely been considered a privilege exchanged for good behaviour rather than a well-planned service and a human right.” A “combination of moralism, budget shortfalls and a punitive philosophy…has allowed Canadian prisons to become sites of perpetual punishment and trauma for the people that inhabit them,” she writes. That leaves the prison librarian with an impossible task: delivering a service that matches the public library while contending with the security constraints of prison. De Agostini says she still wonders if she could have fought harder or done more to provide a better library service.

By the time Amara was transferred to the SHU, he’d been incarcerated for three years and was beginning to lay the foundations of separating himself from his extremist mindset. During his first year there, he took a psychology course and a critical thinking course through Athabasca University, which offers flexible distance learning. The trouble was, and continues to be, that CSC offers little to no deradicalization programming. Even though he had the willingness to change, it was difficult to tackle the emotional roots of his ideology on his own. He didn’t have a therapist; all he had was books.

In the SHU, he couldn’t go to the library, but there were old, out of date catalogues at a bookstand where he could make written book requests. He came across Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which led him to one of the most important books he ever read: In the First Circle, also by the Russian author. He loved it so much, he ended up buying it from the SHU. “When I got my parole,” he says, voice filled with emotion, “I gave it as a gift to my parole officer.”

“Any extremist or dogmatic person hides a secret doubt,” Amara says. “That’s why fanatics overcompensate.” The reason the book touched him so deeply was the dialogue between the characters, he explains—the main character was a communist officer who became disillusioned. Had it been about Islamic extremists, Amara says he wouldn’t have read it—too close to home. But because it was about a different type of ideology, he could discern the parallels to his own situation and the conversations between the characters “cracked away” at his beliefs.

“My message is, look at whatever limited access and problematic access I had, look what it’s done for me and imagine what it can do if we make it better,” says Amara. “What I got out of it changed my life.”

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