Books on the Inside – Prison Libraries

Article | Issue: Apr 2022

Historians Arthur der Weduwen and Andrew Pettegree, authors of  The Library: A fragile history, say that libraries have had a very chequered history. In recent times the death of the library has been pessimistically predicted but does this prediction carry any truth? \

In the first of a special series of articles about libraries, KAREN WILLIAMS discovers the significant role played by libraries in the NSW Corrective Services.


‘Reading is an important part of the rehabilitation options available in prison. I’m passionate about my role because i have the opportunity to contribute positively to that,’ says Rebecca Bolland Manalac, manager of the Corrective Library Services for the Department of Justice and Communities, NSW.


Rebecca brings her formidable experience in corporate, government, public and legal libraries to manage the Corrective Services libraries for New South Wales prisons. The job is a huge one, servicing both staff and its inmates, with a collection of approximately 170 000 books and literacy resources. There are a total of 43 individual libraries with some correctional centres having more than one library. Rebecca says she is well supported by a team of seven librarians who are centrally located at either the Corrective Services Academy or at Silverwater Metropolitan Remand & Reception Centre (MRCC). Each correctional centre also has one or two educational people who help manage the library on a daily basis.

‘The Libraries’ main focus is to provide recreational, educational and legal reading material for inmates’, says Rebecca. But this is only half the job. ‘We also play a big role supporting staff including psychologists and criminologists keep up to date with the latest research in their respective fields,’ she says.

‘Escapism is probably our highest sought-after genre by women – including fantasy, science fiction, crime, romance and mystery. This is followed by non-fiction titles: self-help, health and biographies.’

While all inmates are given access to library resources, Rebecca says low literacy levels is one of their biggest challenges. This is tackled by ensuring inmates have a good supply of books for all reading levels. Some of the correctional centres also have intensive learning centres and programs that help manage, recommend and purchase reading material, particularly adult English as a Second Language (ESL) books.

Although the collection is primarily in English, some libraries maintain a collection of books in languages other than English that are for loan.There are significant collections in around 20 languages with the biggest collections being in Mandarin and Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi and Arabic.

In NSW there are four dedicated or permanent women’s prisons but women are also held in five to six other correctional centres. Harinder Kaur is the Library Liaison Officer based at Dillwynia Correctional Centre, which houses 400 women. She currently oversees one unit of 200 women and has worked in the prison system for 29 years. She speaks passionately about the impact of the programs which support women to learn to read and write, as well as increasing existing literacy skills. There is a strong emphasis on ensuring women have the essential skills to reintegrate into society and the workforce.

‘The library,’ she says, ‘not only provides the relevant resources but ensures that women are supported emotionally on this journey.’

Both Rebecca and Harinder talk positively about a Mothers and Childrens program where some inmates have children living with them. A number of organisations, including Shine, provide supportive literacy programs; one of these is helping inmates record themselves reading a book. Importantly, this year, Rebecca is working with the State Library to build and develop their collections of First Nations books and voices in the libraries.

Unlike public libraries, almost everything in the Correctional Library Services collection is print based, which presents a unique challenge, particularly during periods like the pandemic when access to the library is restricted.

‘Although it will be a long road before we move completely online we are currently trialling a pilot program using customised tablets to give inmates greater access, particularly for ebooks and audio,’ says Rebecca.

Inmates at some of the lower security centres work in the libraries, managing the circulation of the books and recommending books to purchase for the library. Access to the library is open and encouraged for all women but physical access to the library varies from centre to centre depending on the security level and the inmates’ work and study programs. At lower security prisons, libraries are open all day.

It is clear that the CLS (Corrective Library Services) plays an integral part in helping women engage with and improve their literacy and that together with the educational programs, provides a window of hope. This year, building and developing their collection of First Nations books and voices, with the assistance of the State Library, will be another positive goal to aim for.


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