What do prisoners read, and what kinds of books are stored in prison libraries? Without exception, histories of libraries mention S. R. Ranganathan as instrumental in the establishment of Library Associations (1933 in Calcutta) or Library Systems, Development Plans, Committees and Acts prior to and after independence. These served not only to emphasize the need for systematic library programmes, but linked prison populations to the category of the public, as has been done in countries with vigorous library movements. (Libraries and Librarianship in India by Jashu Patel and Krishan Kumar). Since then, prison libraries flow in and out of public view from time to time, as the object of reforms.
Anupama on libraries in Himachal Pradesh
Scholars of library science have produced detailed accounts of prison libraries, such as Anupama whose PhD thesis on prison libraries in Himachal Pradesh indicates that after preliminary reforms of 1835 in the colonial period, the Prisons Act of 1870 and 1894 shape the existing prison system in India. Post-independence efforts to ensure access to libraries can be traced to library manuals, such as the All India Jail Manual Committee (I960) and the Punjab Government’s Manual for the Superintendence and Management of Jails (1963) in Punjab, which directly recommended that efforts be made to make libraries more accessible. Individual states and prisons arrived at their own levels of reform, with the issue acquiring popularity and visibility from time to time through figures like Kiran Bedi.
Anupama’s work provides a history and account of 14 prisons in every district of Himachal Pradesh, including information on prisoners. It notes that some prison libraries such as the ones in Kangra and Kullu districts, worked in coordination with the State District Libraries, allowing prisoners wider access to material, while many others do not. Lahaul and Spiti have no prison and therefore no prison library. Her accounts of being alone with prisoners, and of having to access remote prisons are a valuable record.
Nirmal Singh on Punjab
‘Inmates or information debarred? An overview of library services in prisons of Punjab (India)’ by Nirmal Singh who is Assistant Librarian, Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Ludhiana, suggests that few prisons in Punjab have good libraries, often lacking even a newspaper, thereby locking their inmates away from any contact with goings on in the world.
Of the well-functioning libraries in various parts of the country, he mentions the Viyyur Central Jail (Kerala), which ‘has a separate library building with a collection of over 10,000 books in addition to newspapers and periodicals for 800 inmates (The Times of India, 2011)’, and the Central Prison, Poojappura which contains 15,000 books. Among other libraries that feature in his article are those of Bhondsi in Haryana, and Tihar in Delhi.
Singh also cites the Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH), Noida, which set up a library in Dasna Jail for prisoners. The library was stocked with over 4,000 titles by students ‘based on the survey of prisoners about their requirement for books as an extension of their social initiative under the Ranganathan Society for Social Welfare and Library Development.’, he states. ‘The institute also gifted two computers to the jail with library automation software uploaded’, and students trained prisoners to look after the library and the computers (The Times of India, 2012).
The Centre on the Death Penalty and libraries in Madhya Pradesh
The Death Penalty Research Project at the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi took up the question and included queries about the library as part of its research among prisoners, some on the death row.
As with other studies on prison libraries, these interviews mention classroom like rooms which seat between 8 and 10 people. The SC Bose Jabalpur Central Prison Library is a typical example of a functioning library which stores books on history, fiction, and law among other areas, and prisoners are allowed to borrow books for a fifteen day period. It does not have any link with state libraries. Records of borrowing and a catalogue of books is preserved and literacy and skill training classes are conducted by programmes such as sarv shiksha abhiyaan and NGOS. IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) has a ubiquitous presence in teaching programmes in prison to service literacy programmes. Officials in the Hoshiangabad prison stated that ten percent of the inmates needed basic classes in literacy, and the prison also conducted BA level courses that 76 inmates had cleared, while in the prison in Ujjain, 150 prisoners had sat the IGNOU exam. As is possibly the case in other prisons, while the officials at Hoshiangabad said that the prison put in requests for unavailable books when prisoners asked for them, a prisoner suggests that such requests were obstructed.
Vocation over pleasure
This is perhaps unsurprising as the prison mentions that the budget for books is the same as the stationery budget. Though some libraries in the country are linked to their state district libraries, this is not the case with most prisons. Such links could circumvent the absence of funds which, in the case of those prisons that actually address these needs, would be directed towards vocational training and more instrumental courses. In a prison in Gwalior, an official noted that since most prisoners from the Chambal region had very little education, rarely was a desire expressed for books.
Excerpt from an interview with a prisoner on death row reproduced here:
I: Can you tell us about your experience in prison?
J: As far as I am concerned, prison has proved to be the world’s biggest university. There is no book here that I have not studied. It is true that I can no longer see the sights and spectacles of the outside world. However, when I read I can visualize the world outside within my mind’s eye.
I: When did you begin to cultivate the habit of reading?
J: It is only after I came to prison that I began to read.
I: Would you say that your understanding has expanded?
J: Yes, this has been a change that has influenced my life and my outlook.
I: This expansion of understanding- what is the reason for it?
J: All my perspectives have been enhanced by the books I borrow from the library. I have read almost 10,000 books since coming to this prison. However, it’s been four years since I last stepped foot inside this library.
I: Why is that?
J: After escaping prison, I haven’t been allowed to come here. I request books inside my cell and they are given to me.
I: Which kind of books do you find most engrossing?
J: If you must know, Eyadi is a book I’ve read several times. Then there’s Manushyan Oru Aamukham, Aarachar and Ajith Varkey’s new book.
I: We have heard that you enjoy reading philosophical works as well.
J: My cellmate … has many philosophical books. He has been allowed to keep them in the cell. He has books about the law as well. I have read them all.